Back to School: A Canal Primer

The cry goes out around the country and across the land – it’s September and it’s back to school time. The sound heard from parents is “Hooo-ray!” and from all the kids is “Argh…”

In September 1911, Venice opened its Union Polytechnic High School in the old Lagoon Bathhouse. Imagine the thrill of attending school right next to the hugely popular central lagoon, and probably having to boat to class every day. What a dream it must have been growing up and living in the idyllic fantasy of early Venice.

Abbot Kinney’s original Lagoon Bathhouse, where today’s Ace Market Place is located at Windward and Main, had opened in February, 1906. It featured a 70 x 70 foot heated salt-water plunge and locker space for over 500, with each dressing room open to sunlight. Later as the high school, one principal and five teachers taught 52 students, mostly in the 9th grade. It and Venice’s Central School, now known as Westminster Elementary on Abbot Kinney at Broadway, helped educate the local population of around 10,000. 700 children total were enrolled in Venice schools back then.

Abbot Kinney’s original dream of Venetian waterways came to fruition after 13 months of planning and arduous construction, starting back in 1904. In June of that year, he had already arrived at plans for his Venice of America, an American renaissance that would begin on the shores of the Pacific. They were supposedly drawn up by an apprentice from the landscape architect’s office of Frederick Law Olmstead, best known for the design and development of New York City’s Central Park. By departing from the familiar grid pattern, the architects created the illusion of an extensive canal area, although in reality, the canals were less than one square mile in area.

That spring, Kinney signed contracts to dig the Grand Canal. The canal contract, awarded to Long Beach contractor G.I. Goucher, called for the excavation of a 70 foot wide, four foot deep, half mile long main canal. It would be the first of a series of main and lateral canals totaling more than two miles. Work on removing 100,000 cubic yards of sand and soil began on August 15th.

The lagoon, the hub of Kinney's canal network at the eastern end of Windward Avenue, served as a huge outdoor swimming pool for 5000 bathers and was eight feet deep in the center. It featured a tall, derrick-like central diving tower, an enclosed water-basketball court, a large boathouse for rentals, swimming lanes for races, and a launching platform for the nightly fireworks displays.

A combination of more than 200 teams of horses and an army of human labor initially excavated the canals. Abetted by several steam shovels, these workers removed tons of dirt and sand, using it to build up other low-lying areas. But by November, Kinney had become dissatisfied with the contractor's performance in digging the canals. Five months had passed and they weren't even half way done with the first canal. So he hired the Hall Construction Company to use a steam dredge to complete the two miles of waterways within a 120-day time frame. They launched their dredge on December 28th, but even its steam-powered shovel had trouble digging through hard layers of blue clay.

During May, Kinney's army of workers, who worked long hours during day and night shifts, increased from 600 to 1000, on both the canals and building the pier and Windward Avenue arcades and buildings, to meet the opening-day deadline. Cost was hardly an object, though, as the workers were paid eight dollars a day – a pretty handsome wage in those days.

Finally on Friday, June 30th at 2 P.M. while the ocean tide was rising, Mrs. Kinney turned the valve on the pipes leading to the Pacific. Salt water, pouring in at a rate of 500 gallons a second, soon filled the swimming lagoon and two short canal segments. Coffer dams, just beyond the lagoon, kept the area beyond dry as workers finished cementing the canal banks over the next two months.

Two evenings later, Kinney himself flipped the switch to turn on the 17,000 electric lamps that lined the streets, pier and canals. The effect was inspirational and magical. The canal district was landscaped with flowers and trees, and the graceful bridges, designed by Felix Peano, arched their necks over the waterways. Venice of America's entire canal network was soon completed and filled on September 18th, and the resort was a hit. The crowds came for the sea air, the swimming, and floating in boats on the canals of the sunshine-baked coastal town.

Fast-forward to 1927. It had been 2 years since Venice was annexed to the city of Los Angeles, and city officials decided to fill in the Venice of America canal network so citizens would have more streets and places to park their cars.

First, they legally changed the canal names to streets, then passed a canal fill order that was to be paid as an assessment by the canal property owners. On December 12th, they awarded the canal fill contract to the R.A. Wattson Company.

Finally, after almost 19 months of legal wrangling, the time had come. Despite a three-day canal filling celebration attended by the governor and 5000 residents, it was a dark day in Venice’s history. The first trucks began to dump dirt into Coral Canal in the summer of 1929. An angry crowd of over 100 citizens jumped into the drained canal and started shoveling the dirt out almost as fast as the contractor’s crew could fill it. Nearly 90,000 cubic yards of dirt were eventually trucked in, rolled flat and covered with asphaltic concrete. Work was completed by the end of the year at a cost of $636,000. And that was that. The canals were no more.

An article from the monthly magazine ‘Western City’ back then rhapsodized, “With the passing of another season the famed canals of the Venice of America are but history, and only the old-timer in retrospection will occasionally long for the romance of old,, and the time when the sight of gliding gondolas, the sound of the dipping canoe paddles, and music from the lantern-trimmed bandstand was wafted softly on the evening breeze while the canal waters gently rippled against the banks. This is but a memory and the canals now lie buried beneath tons of earth, covered over by a smooth asphalt pavement, a product of black gold which in itself carries romance and memories of the upbuilding of Southern California.”

But the canals south of Venice Boulevard remained. They survived because the area was only half settled and couldn't support the required assessment. Besides, there wasn’t a need for more streets in that area of Venice. And so, they’re still here today.

But back to the Venice High School of 1914. On September 9th, the landmark on the lagoon burned to the ground. It was said at the time that it furnished the most spectacular conflagration in two years. The flames came directly from the center of the building, and as the fire ascended, it could be seen for miles around. The rapidity with which the flames shot upward indicated that they were being fed by some type of fuel, but there had been no initial explosion. Less than a minute after the arrival of the fire department, six streams of water played on the seething cauldron and three more were held on surrounding buildings so that they would not burn too.

For a full hour the firemen battled the blaze and just as they started to gain on it, the southeast end of the building tottered for a second as if loath to part with its stately verandas. Then with a tremendous crash, the hot timbers fell in two directions, some into the burning pyre and some onto the paving. Finally, the inferno was extinguished. But as to the origin of the blaze, that was never determined and remained a well-discussed mystery around town. The site became a graceful park where one could gaze out over the splendid lagoon.

Propitiously, the High School Board of Directors had already purchased a plot of land on the eastern edge of the city the previous year. The cornerstone had been laid on May 29, 1914, in the presence of a large assembly. Abbot Kinney presided over the affair, which featured the usual convocation, song presentations, various speeches, and a special sealing of a time capsule within the cornerstone itself. After the benediction, LaMonaca’s Band played a brief concert, and the tired masses trooped back home with the setting sun. The high school soon became recognized as one of the most beautiful campuses in the country.

So, as with all back-to-school traditions come September, here’s another one for you to ponder: the untimely Pop Test. So take out your #2 pencils, put on your thinking caps, and get ready to answer a few brain-tuggers on the Venice canals. (Answers will follow.)

1 – Name the original 7 canals.

2 – Name the 4 current streets whose names were changed from their original canal names.

3 – In June of 1914, Abbot Kinney had decided that the lighting of the canals was to be color coordinated, with the color blown into the glass for the street lamps. Name the original colors for each of the 7 canals.

4 – Which original canal was to be renamed Abbot Kinney Boulevard?

5 – Name the existing 6 canals.

6 – Who wanted to “expound on the efficacies of the grand old elixir?” (extra credit!)


1 – Aldebaron, Altair, Cabrillo, Coral, Grand, Lion, Venus

2 – Aldebaron became Market Street, Coral became Main Street, Lion became Windward Avenue, and Venus became San Juan Avenue. All the other canal names remained the same.

3 – Aldebaron – green, Altair – orange, Cabrillo – red and amber, Coral – blue, Grand & the lagoon – red, Lion – red and blue, Venus – amber

4 – In June of 1925, Grand canal was to be renamed after the Doge of Venice, but it was rejected by the City Trustees in anticipation that the lagoon was a better spot since it would, in the future, be the site for a statue honoring Abbot Kinney. The Venice Centennial 2005 committee is even today working to place that statue in its rightful place.

5 – Carroll, Linnie, Howland, Sherman, Eastern, and Grand. They were originally part of the Short Line Beach canal system, announced in December of 1904 and completed the following year.

6 – Ozzie Nelson, of course. If you got this one, then you really didn’t spend too much time in school! And to that, I too say, “Hooo-ray!”