By Marty Liboff
When Abbot Kinney opened his Venice of America in 1905, he had a small steam train running around the canals. On the Venice Ocean Front there were wicker basket trams that were pushed from behind by people power. (A good idea for today?).
By 1920 the trams were electric battery powered. They ran from Windward Ave. and the Venice Pier, to the Ocean Park Pier, and then to the Santa Monica Pier, and back. Believe it or not, when I was a kid, the Ocean Front Walk continued straight to the Santa Monica Pier with shops, homes and hotels just like in Venice.
In 1923, the Venice Tram Company was formed. By the 1930s, the trams had 4 cylinder, Ford model A engines and canopy tops. There were also similar 4 cylinder, Chevy engines.The seats faced toward the ocean or shops plus a back seat.
In 1958, the Ocean Park Pier was transformed into Pacific Ocean Park, or P.O.P. It was an amazing ocean-themed Disneyland. (This is another great story.) The old trams were spruced up and painted blue, and cute seahorses were attached to the fronts. On the back was an ad for P.O.P. During the early days of P.O.P., the 18 tram fleet carried 20,000 people a day!
The old engines kept rolling for over 40 years. They never went very fast, especially in later years. Sometimes they would even stop if there were too many people on board. It was a nickel early on, then a dime. My pal Hank reminded me that for a while you had to pay an extra dime to go all the way to the Santa Monica Pier.
When I was little, my mom would take me on the tram to Windward ave. There were all kinds of shops there: grocery store, drugstore, clothing shops, notions and a bar. She would do some shopping and then we would ride the tram back home to Ocean Park. The conductor would stop for us by our house. I loved riding the tram, watching the walk go by with people and sites and with the ocean breeze blowing through my hair. It was wonderful sunny days…
Most of us poor kids in Ocean Park and Venice would wait until the tram slowed or stopped and then we’d hop on the back and sneak on. Back in the 1950s, a dime could buy us kids a comic book, a Coke in a bottle, or even two Hershey chocolate almond bars. We wouldn’t want to spend our precious dime on the tram if we could sneak on for free. A couple times we got caught and the conductor stopped and kicked us off. I remember him yelling at us! Sometimes the conductor saw us but let us poor kids ride anyway. Some of the early skateboarders in the neighborhood would grab the back and be towed along the beachfront. Real cool! Sometimes the conductor would yell at them! It was great fun…
As I remember, they had a big garage on Brooks and the Speedway, behind where the Cafe Venicia is today. They were kept there and tinkered on. There were 18 trams, and 16 before they stopped running. They were always tuning up those antique engines. It was an amazing shop with strange tools and lifts and things going on.
After P.O.P. opened, Santa Monica began its Ocean Park Redevelopment Project and tore down most of Ocean Park. A couple years later, L.A. began condemning the old Abbot Kinney buildings around Windward and other old buildings around the beach. The beach became blighted. Then P.O.P. closed in Oct.1967. P.O.P. soon became a crazy, scary ghost town. There was no reason to take the tram and no place to go. The few buildings left on Windward just had a couple seedy bars. Ocean Park was gutted. The heart of old Ocean Park was Pier Ave., with shops of all kinds, and it was torn down. Many of us locals had been kicked out and our homes demolished. We were some of the trams ridership. I remember watching the old torn up trams sadly chugging along the boardwalk with rarely any riders.
In September 1970, after one of many fires on the closed P.O.P. pier, the trams stopped running without any fanfare. The manager, Robert Bestor, a relative of the original owner, said that “Revenue was way down since P.O.P. closed. Our revenue doesn’t even cover the cost of our insurance. The beach is in a state of decay. Vandals have cut up the seats and canvas tops. Some neighborhood kids jump on to ride for free. Some kids even throw rocks at us and dent the trams!” He also blamed TV: “TV hurt business also. People don’t go to piers and ballrooms anymore. They stay home and watch TV.”
In the next few months, there was some discussion by the L.A.City Council whether to save the trams in the hope that the beachfront would improve. Some councilmen wanted the Parks and Recreation, or Transportation departments, to take over the trams, but in the end they decided to end the franchise.
After nearly 48 years and over 10 million riders, the Venice Tram Company disappeared. There had been trams on the Ocean Front since the beginning of Abbot Kinney’s amazing Venice of America, over 65 years before the last run. Now, only a handful of us old timers even remember the tram.
(For more history read ‘Venice California: Coney Island of the Pacific’ by Jeffrey Stanton)
Damn Where’s that Venice Tram!
Hot damn Madame
Let’s ride the Venice Tram.
For only a Dime
We’ll have a great Time.
From Windward to the Santa Monica Pier
I’m gonna kiss my Dear.
We can eat green eggs and Ham
On the Venice Tram.
Its fun at the pier in Venice
Eatin pizza & Coke with Ice.
We’ll ride the roller coaster at P.O.P.
Then swim in the Sea.
Off to Santa Monica Pier we Zoom
To dance at the La Monica Ballroom.
Then back again to Windward
Where the conductor yells,”All Aboard!”
Hot damn Madame
Lets ride the Venice Tram!
– Marty Liboff
Above: The Venice Tram through the years: Top postcard: Man-powered push roller chairs, 1905 to 1910; Second and third postcards: Electric trams, 1910 to early 1930s; Bottom postcard: The tram from the 1930s to when it stopped in 1970.