A postcard showing Venice’s miniature railway, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
In the early 1900s, Los Angeles and environs were booming. Ballyhoo from groups like the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, railroads, the Automobile Club, realtors, and civic groups promoting Southern California as a promised land to Midwesterners and easterners stuck in cold climates drew thousands to the area. Slogans such as “the Land of Sunshine” and “Sunlit Skies of Glory” described the area as a new Eldorado for more than sixty years.
The expansion of streetcar lines by people like Henry Huntington, Eli P. Clark, and M. H. Sherman opened new areas of Los Angeles and environs to possible subdivision for all the new immigrants to the golden land. Real estate promoters rushed to fill these needs with multitudes of housing developments. One of these, New Jersey transplant Abbot Kinney, envisioned an elaborate recreation of romantic Venice, Italy, south of Ocean Park and Santa Monica as both theme park and community, from the Rancho La Ballona land he and partners had purchased.
Kinney dreamed of a beachfront theme park called Venice of America, filled with elaborate canals, entertainment piers, hotel, lecture halls, and concert, theatre, and dance venues. Deciding to finish the project on his own, Kinney hired architects Norman F. Marsh and C. H. Russell to design his concept and civil engineer Fremont Ackerman to take care of technical issues. Kinney submitted his plat of the tract with plans in 1904, proclaiming his planned community would open on Memorial Day, 1905.
The Los Angeles Herald, formerly published by Kinney, saluted its building with a long article on the May 21, 1905, proclaiming it a “resort of princely magnificence” and “creation of genius.” Kinney’s marvel consisted of 120 acres within 100 feet of the shore, with picturesque canals transporting pedestrians and traffic instead of major thoroughfares. Advertisements promoted it as a “summer city,” filled with affordable beach shore bungalows, moderately priced villas, a restaurant, and pleasure pier at the foot of Windward Avenue. The article quoted from the novel “Captains of the World” in describing visionary Kinney: “And it may be said of him that which can be said of few, that out of his dreams he cut his destiny.”
To help transport tourists through the mecca, Kinney constructed a miniature railway along the canals, offering not only visitors but prospective buyers an opportunity to view the dreamy landscape. As noted in the article, “on the farther side of Venice proper, a miniature railway will be operated along the thoroughfares leading to the waterways on which diminutive engines drawing tiny railroad cars will give visitors an opportunity to encircle the picturesque city… .”
Kinney lured John J. Coit, operator of a successful 18 inch gauge railroad at Eastlake Park to supervise construction and manage operations, which ending up costing $23,000. Coit ordered a $4150 Prairie 2-6-2 oil burning engine from Los Angeles’ Johnson Machine Works, who finished it in black with silver lettering. The first set of five twelve passenger cars were painted royal blue, and the second painted was painted a bright cherry red, each with a lion’s head decorating each door, representing the symbol of Venice. Three engines carried passengers in a circular route around Venice on a five cent ride, driving over canals, stopping at the exotic zone, entrance to the midway, and making a circular path at Windward Avenue to turn around. The service yard at Venice and Abbot Kinney Boulevards consisted of a turntable, three stall engine barn, machine shop, and storage for passenger cars. The Venice Miniature Railway began operating July 30, 1905, with Carlton Kinney, the young son of the land speculator, named president. Popular with children as well as adults, as many as 600 passengers rode the train on weekends.
After bad weather and other delays pushed back construction, Kinney’s Venice finally celebrated its grand opening July 4 1905, with 40,000 people in attendance, per Jeffrey Stanton’s “Venice, California: Coney Island of the Pacific.” The area consisted of 592 residential lots, circular canals, and entertainment district, featuring aquarium, a museum of California Indian materials, boating, swimming, fishing, an assembly-like Chautauqua building, and amusement park, modeled somewhat after Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition. Going independent, the visionary erected his beachfront oasis, draining marshes and digging canals, constructing a breakwater, and erecting many of his entertainment facilities.
In late 1906, various people accused Coit and his brother Peter of stealing. The brothers asked for the engines in settlement, as they had lent their own because of heavy business. Troubles erupted and some engine parts went missing. The train shut operations for a short time while the parts were reordered and built.
Kinney reached out to conventions to tour the site as well as ride his small train. The Association of Railway Agents met in Los Angeles mid-February 1908, riding on the miniature railway as one of their activities. One of their executives called it “a wonderful attraction” to the Los Angeles Herald.
Advertisements in newspapers as far away as Arizona and other states also promoted the little train that could as well. A January 15, 1909 ad called it “the longest and best equipped miniature railway,” offering a general view of the canals and new residential district. “A two-mile ride on this unique little train is worth four times the cost.”
A rich tourist in a hurry to get back to downtown Los Angeles with his son to catch a train chartered the little railway for his own special ride on January 31, 1910, as he couldn’t wait until the next official arrival time. The engineer gave the family a fast ride at almost the full thirty miles an hour top speed of the engine, per the Los Angeles Herald.
Disaster followed soon after, with the train suffering its first collision with animal and automobile later that year. On June 3, 1910, the railroad crashed into a horse and wagon belonging to Reed and Young grocers standing on the train right of way, causing serious injury to the horse that probably would lead to him being put down. Driver Vernon Austin didn’t think any trains were running, since it usually wasn’t in operation until noon, so he left the wagon on the track while seeking out grocery orders. Engine two was out for a test run at a quick speed after an overhaul, and didn’t see the wagon until crossing the Grand Canal Bridge. Though applying the brakes, the small engine failed to stop in time. On July 1, an automobile overturned an empty passenger car when failing to stop.
“Speed Boys,” about the 4:26 mark.
The entertainment industry took notice of the miniature train, employing it for filming various two reelers. The February 5, 1914 Moving Picture World reported that director Henry Lehrman of Keystone Film Co. leased the railroad for a two-reeler in which a juvenile heroine was kidnapped by a juvenile villain, with the film possibly titled “Little Billy’s Strategy.” John Bengtson notes on his blog, “Silent Locations,” that Harold Lloyd also shot scenes on the little train. In 1917, Lloyd and BeBe Daniels ride off into the sunset on the miniature railway at the conclusion of “By the Sad Sea Waves,” and in “Number, Please?,” Lloyd rides off alone.
Century Comedies obviously remembered these films when shooting two shorts as well. Cute little four-year-old Baby Peggy, called “Cute, lovable, and funny” in one review, starred in the short, “Miles of Smiles” in fall 1923. Peggy plays a pair of twins in which one keeps wandering off from her home, and is almost run over by the miniature train, but saved by the engineer at the last moment. Finding no one around with her, he takes her home to raise her, teaching her to feed the engine oil, “roughneck” as one review states, and even drive the train in a couple of scenes, up and over a bridge and around the canals. In the Century Comedy Kids (a less funny version of Our Gang)’ short, “Speed Boys,” Spec O’Donnell and some of his friends play around the little train, per Film Daily, and according to a review in Exhibitors Trade Review on November 22, 1924, run the railroad.
By 1925, however, tougher city regulations, business opposition, Kinney’s death five years earlier, and other problems forced the tiny railroad to close on February 13, 1925. Over the next couple of years, the trains were sold to a couple of people, before parts went to junkyards and others to various locations. In 1939, Engine No. 2 was rescued by Los Gatos’ railroad man Billy Jones from a San Francisco scrap yard. He took it home, spent years repairing and overhauling it, and began operating it on his ranch in 1943. Train enthusiast Walt Disney even rode it after fellow train lover Ward Kimball informed him of it, with home movie footage of this event showing at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Home Movie night. The little engine still runs in a Los Gatos’ city park, happily entertaining thousands of people.
Al Smith supposedly bought Engine No. 1, track, and turntable for $950 from a Vernon scrap yard in 1935, repairing and restoring it for years before running it in several locations around the Gabriel Valley, ending up at Streamland Park in Pico Riviera. Operational problems once again sent it to a junk yard, with Don McCoy acquiring it and restoring it to operation. He and his sons ran it for several years in the 1970s at Whittler Narrows Park in South El Monte until vandalism shut it down. It appears to be in storage at this time.
Decades after Abbot Kinney’s grand canals were filled in and paved around Venice, his miniature trains still survive, with one still thrilling railroad lovers and children as it steams its way around the track.