History is replete with stories about places lost to natural disasters, neglect and progress. But have you ever stopped to imagine how Santa Monica would be if certain plans had come to fruition? What would our City be like had schemes by founder John P. Jones and subsequent political mavens, dreamers and criminal masterminds succeeded?
Santa Monica as the official Port of Los Angeles?
When wealthy U.S. Senator John P. Jones of Nevada bought a seventy-five percent stake in Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica in 1874, he had grand plans to develop Santa Monica into a major commercial center and sea port. In February 1875, piqued at the outrageous rates charged by Collis Huntington and his Southern Pacific Railroad, Senator Jones started building his own short rail from Los Angeles to a then burgeoning Santa Monica to directly challenge Southern Pacific’s monopoly on all commercial shipping in and out of Los Angeles. In response, Huntington dramatically reduced Southern Pacific fares in November 1875 to undercut ridership on Jones’ Los Angeles & Independence Railroad and offered deals to shipping companies for using the port at San Pedro to shut out Santa Monica. Jones soon went broke trying to keep his railroad afloat and finally sold his railroad to Huntington at a severe loss.
Then in 1892, Huntington decided to construct his own harbor in Santa Monica and built a 1,740 foot Long Wharf freight pier into the bay in an attempt to crush any railway competition. Huntington named the new harbor, Port Los Angeles and strong-armed businesses into using Santa Monica over San Pedro. The “Great Free Harbor Fight” was on! Thanks to a young California senator named Stephen M. White who stood up to the powerful tycoon and his political cronies, the Port of Los Angeles was built in San Pedro, not in Santa Monica.
How about an island in the Santa Monica Bay?
Did you hear the one about the causeway of man-made islands connected by a highway that would extend a mile out into the Bay? Strange as it may seem today, this plan had enthusiastic support in 1959 when the state planned to turn Highway 1 into a major freeway.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deemed the idea feasible in 1963 and detailed plans show the Santa Monica Causeway starting at the Santa Monica Pier and proceeding north of Topanga Canyon. Sixty-five percent of the 3,200 acres on the man-made islands would have been residential space with the rest for churches, schools and parks. Although Los Angeles backed out in 1968, support for this landscape-altering project remained high with Santa Monica’s elected and hired officials. Serious concerns about the environmental impact of this massive coastline project from the Santa Monica Bay Area Freeway Citizens Committee and others, along with lack of citizen support and the California State Legislature’s decision to drop the Santa Monica to Ventura component of the coast highway plan ultimately killed the project. But not the dream of it.
In 1972, decidedly pro-development City Manager Perry Scott presented a new plan for an island in Santa Monica Bay to the City Council. Despite vehement opposition to “Santa Monica Island” from local environmental groups because it would destroy the coastline, the City Council voted 6-0 in favor of the plan. Undeterred, the grass roots group, Save the Santa Monica Bay Committee spearheaded efforts to stop the project and public outcry reached its peak in 1973. At a second hearing about the island, the council voted 4-2 to abandon “Santa Monica Island.”
Casinos in the Bay?
This is a great story made even better because it actually happened. Anthony Cornero, a.k.a. “Tony the Hat,” “Tony Stralla,” “Captain Tony,” and “Admiral Cornero,” was an Italian immigrant drawn to the easy money to be made in crime in Los Angeles from the 1920s to 1950s. He was a risk-taker who made $1 million during Prohibition bootlegging alcohol from Canada and Mexico to Los Angeles until his arrest for rum running in 1929. When he was released from McNeil Penitentiary, Prohibition was dead and he needed a new way to remake his fortune. Not that he had any plans to go straight. Cornero decided to take the high-road among lucrative criminal occupations, discarding drugs and prostitution, hitting on off-shore gambling as his ticket to wealth.
After gambling away his first investment in the gambling ship, the Tango, Cornero purchased a live-bait barge and invested $200,000 to make the gambling ship, Rex seaworthy. With territorial waters ending three miles from shore, he anchored the Rex exactly 3.1 miles off Santa Monica’s shoreline and opened on May 5, 1938. High rollers, celebrities, and regular Joe’s and Josephine’s could play roulette, faro, stud-poker, high-spade, craps, chuck-a-luck, blackjack and a Chinese lottery. The Rex also had 150 slot machines, a horse parlor, and a bingo parlor.
Cornero aggressively advertised the Rex through leaflets, newspaper ads and skywriting. Water taxis shuttled up to 2,000 people a day from the Santa Monica Pier to the Rex for a chance to win “fair-and square.” Los Angeles District Attorney Burton Fitts launched raids on the Rex and State Attorney Earl Warren served abatement orders against the Rex and other gambling ships off California’s coast, but raids by Warren and Fitts failed to shut down operations. The ship’s crew reportedly used pressure hoses to fend off the police. Cornero’s reign on the high seas ended on Nov.20, 1939, when the California Supreme Court ruled that Santa Monica Bay fell under state jurisdiction, allowing gambling laws to be enforced.
Visit http://smpl.org/Local_History_mainpage.aspx for information about resources at your library to learn more about Santa Monica’s history.Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (310) 434-2608.
This article was produced by staff in Reference Services at the Santa Monica Public Library. Resources consulted included books, microfilm and digital archives.