MARINA DEL REY History
BY FRANK COFFEY
THE PAST AS PROLOGUE
Marina del Rey, like much of the City of Angels, has a rich and colorful history – it’s just not all that old. The harbor at the heart of the community of Marina del Rey is a splendid example of a successful Army Corps of Engineers project; funded and planned cooperatively by the Federal government, Los Angeles County, and private developers, it is the largest man-made marina in North America, with over 4,600 boat slips.
Blessed with a temperate climate and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, this unincorporated district of Los Angeles County with a population just over 8,000 began as a dream that, to paraphrase Marcel Proust, became an address.
The Shoshone and Gabrielino/Tongva Indians were the region’s first residents. They lived along the bluffs above the ocean and were the area’s first fishermen and hunters, but by no means the last. Eventually, they shared the land and sea—the good duck hunting and steel-head trout fishing—with the Spanish explorers and, in time, with the first Angelenos.
The dream that eventually became modern Marina del Rey began in 1887 when a developer named M.L. Wicks (working under the auspices of the Santa Fe Railway) sought to create a commercial harbor for the city of Los Angeles from the estuary and inlets of the village of Playa del Rey. Three years, one wharf-destroying storm, and $300,000 later, Wicks’ Port Ballona Development Company —the name probably derived from la ballena, Spanish for “whale”— was bankrupt and the ducks and hunters resumed their seasonal pas de deux.
THE CARNIVAL NEXT DOOR
Not long after Wicks’ fall, a visionary named Abbot Kinney had his own dream: the creation of an oceanfront cultural and recreational haven, complete with an extensive system of canals and bridges modeled on a certain sea-surrounded Italian paradise in the blue Adriatic. Kinney magnificently pulled off his ambitious artistic vision immediately north of today’s Marina, where he founded Venice-by-the-Sea, later shortened to Venice. The community reigned as the Coney-Island-of-the-West for some 30 years, though it faded in the mid-20th century. Venice rebounded in the 1960s, and today it still carries that era’s bohemian attitude and culture.
Modern Venice Beach is home to painters, poets, body builders, performance artists, street vendors, and eccentrics of every conceivable stripe—think New York’s Greenwich Village with better weather and tans. A modest portion of Abbot Kinney’s grand scheme of canals and bridges remains to this day, a few blocks northeast of the Venice Pier.
WE HARBOR NO GRUDGES
Over 70-some years after Wicks’ failed attempt to create a marina from what was mostly wetlands (locals called it a swamp), his concept periodically piqued renewed interest of various governmental and private developers. But in 1936, the region lost the commercial harbor debate to southern neighbor San Pedro, now the home of Los Angeles Harbor, the West Coast’s largest port.
It would be another decade before plans for our own harbor were revived, and during those intervening years, the area was making history of different sorts. Early automotive races, sometimes featuring Barney Oldfield, one of the sport’s first stars, ran from Playa del Rey to Venice along a roadway on the Marina peninsula, now appropriately named Speedway. Pacific Electric ran its famed Red Car line here. And beneath those rails was “black gold”—and plenty of it. As far back as the 1920s, oil rigs had dotted the landscape, the iron skeletons stretching as far as the camera could see. All the rigs are gone now, replaced by volleyball nets, beachfront apartments, lifeguard stands, and surf and bike shops.
The wetland landscape didn’t dissuade the eccentric multimillionaire Howard Hughes from relocating his Hughes Tool Company in 1940 to over a thousand acres in the nearby Ballona Wetlands. There he constructed Hughes Airport (with the world’s longest runway at nearly 2 miles) and built the famous Spruce Goose, a huge wooden aircraft that flew just one short flight, with its chagrined creator at the stick.
In 1949, the anchorage that became Marina del Rey’s raison d’etrefinally hit the fast track when the Army Corps of Engineers submitted an elaborate $23 million plan for a marina with the capability of mooring over 8,000 small-craft boats. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Public Law 780, authorizing the Marina as a federal project. With the construction nearing completion, a vicious 1962-63 winter storm demonstrated that the main channel leading into the harbor was vulnerable to strong wave action. Baffles were quickly installed perpendicularly to the channel, and then later replaced with the bouldered jetty seen today.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Marina del Rey translates from the Spanish as “Harbor of the King,” and if that seems a tad grandiose consider the following: One of the definitions of king is “best example of its kind.” So, adding a dose of humility, the designation of Marina del Reysimply says “this is a pretty darn good harbor.” And it certainly is.
Centuries removed, the area that is today’s Marina was the mouth of the Los Angeles River. Eventually the river shifted course, south to Long Beach and Los Alamitos Bay, leaving a 2-mile-wide body of water called Del Rey Lagoon. In 1839 the lagoon was, ironically, awarded as a “land” grant by the Mexican government to two pairs of brothers, Ygnacio and Augustin Machado and Felipe and Tomas Talamantes. By the time the federal project that would create Marina del Rey began, the lagoon carried the awkward name of The Playa del Rey Inlet and Harbor of Venice, California. Los Angeles County Supervisor Burton Chace, long a champion and developer of Los Angeles coastline, decided a new, more euphonious appellation was badly needed. By some accounts, and the history is fuzzy here, it was Chace who came up with the Marina del Rey moniker. Whether he did or did not, Burton Chace definitely was its leading advocate.
It took eight years of indefatigable lobbying before the man today credited as the Father of the Marina prevailed. The good news came in the form of a Western Union telegram to Chace from a Democratic California congressman who happened to be the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Dated January 25, 1962, the telegram read:
“Happy To Advise Senate Passed H.R. 157 Today To Change Name To Marina Del Rey. President’s Signature Expected in Due Course. —James Roosevelt.”
Marina del Rey was officially born when President John F. Kennedy signed H.R. 157 into law. With the final piece of the puzzle in place, the Marina was dedicated on April 10, 1965, and the surrounding community became identified as Marina del Rey. The area quickly flourished, initially gaining recognition as a singles destination, then maturing into a well-rounded community.
WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE
All history is living and our Marina offers many opportunities to create your own. If you love the water, Marina del Rey is the place to be. On-the-sea recreational opportunities abound, from harbor and Santa Monica Bay cruises, sail and power boat rentals and charters, kayaking and paddle boarding, and bay fishing trips in pursuit of halibut, yellowfin tuna, perch, barracuda, rockfish, cod, mackerel, and sea bass. There’s surprisingly good whale watching and ever-present dolphins, harbor seals, and sea lions.
Waves hit our beaches approximately 6,000 times a day, about every 14 seconds, which makes for fine beach combing in a shell-rich environment. Find a sand dollar on the tide line and you’re at peace with the world. Surf, boogie board, swim, and frolic in the sea, with the Santa Monica Mountains a green backdrop.
Often you’ll be able to see Mt. Baldy, 50 miles inland and half the year capped with snow. Or bird watch, being sure not to miss the magnificent brown pelicans gliding with pre-historic grace before plummeting into the ocean in search of a meal. Visit our neighbor, Venice, and prepare for state-of-the-art ogling opportunities along its world-famous boardwalk area and “Muscle Beach.” Climb on a two-wheeler and hit the bike path, a 22-mile adventure with Santa Monica to the north and Manhattan Beach to the south. Visit picturesque Burton Chace Park or tranquil Marina (a.k.a. Mother’s) Beach, both home to many community festivals and free summer entertainment.
“It Never Rains in Southern California” claimed singer/songwriter Albert Hammond in 1972—but it does, just not very much. Enjoy our Marina, perhaps briefly reminding yourself of other, less hospitable climes, then consider this: You were meant to be here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Frank Coffey, a long-time Marina del Rey resident, is the author of 30 books including 60 Minutes: 25 Years of Television’s Finest Hour and The Complete Idiot’s Guide for Dummies (sic).
To learn more about the history of Marina del Rey, visit the Marina del Rey Historical Society museum at Fisherman’s Village. Connect with the society online at marinadelreyhistoricalsociety.org.