During a recent trip to California for a beach volleyball tournament my daughter participated in, I had a chance to visit the revered Santa Monica Pier.
Upon arriving, our group enjoyed delicious mojitos and salsa at the Mariasol Mexican restaurant, located at the end of the pier. Then we stopped in the tiny pier gift shop and posed for pictures on and below the pier. My daughter and I went back six days later before heading to the airport for our flight back to Raleigh to experience all the pier had to offer. (Mainly, she wanted to ride the roller coaster!)
If you plan to visit this pier someday, it’s worth taking a quick history lesson on how it came to be. You might be surprised at what this historic pier’s original purpose was!
The Early Days
“It all started in 1909,” states the Santa Monica Pier’s website. Unfortunately, we’ll need to plunge into some Pacific potty talk to explain what IT was.
In the early 20th century, Santa Monica, California, had a problem: sewage disposal. The town resolved to build a 1,600-foot-long Municipal Pier to which a sewage pipe was fastened that would allow Santa Monican sewage to be dumped into — you guessed it — the blue-green waters of the Pacific Ocean. (Fortunately the town discontinued this practice in the 1920s.)
The good news is, town officials opted to build a sturdier, more sea-worthy pier made of concrete for the job — the first of its kind on the West Coast. Fishermen began to frequent the pier due to plentiful fish in the waters surrounding it, and stories of catching 500-pound black sea bass began to circulate. (According to the Santa Monica Pier’s website, some of those fish tales were true!)
In 1915, motivated by competition from nearby Ocean Park and Venice piers, Santa Monica town leaders decided to add an amusement park to the pier. Their mission attracted famed Coney Island carnival carver Charles Looff, who constructed a wider pier next to the original pier upon which to build the amusement park.
As part of the entertainment venue, the Looff Hippodrome opened on Looff Pleasure Pier in 1916, and it still exists today. Modeled after Ancient Greek Hippodromes, the structure consists of an open-air stadium featuring an oval course for horse and chariot races. Today, it’s most famous for housing a vintage merry-go-round and Wurlitzer organ.
View this post on Instagram
Tomorrow, celebrate 100 years of the Looff Hippodrome! Charles I. D. Looff built the structure in 1916 to house a Looff Carousel. Thanks to Eyewitness @mylck for this pic of the Merry-Go-Round it houses now. Ride the ponies for a nickel, tour the historic carousel apartments, and take your picture with Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chapman and Popeye! You can also enjoy a Brass Ring Sundae…one scoop of salted caramel topped with caramel sauce, one scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate, all covered in crushed potato chips with a single chip on top. Bring the family, Sunday 11am-7pm, and share your photos with #abc7eyewitness!
In 1919, that sturdy old pier threw everyone for a loop when it dropped 2 feet into the ocean due to rust accumulation on its vaunted concrete piles. The piles were replaced with creosote-treated wooden piles by 1921 and, eventually, the concrete deck was replaced with wooden deckboards. Construction took on the theme of, “In with the old and out with the new!” Concrete was apparently soooo 1900s.
The Santa Monica Amusement Company formed in 1924 when Looff’s son sold the amusement venue. In July of that same year, the grand 15,000-square-foot La Monica Ballroom opened and became the hottest ticket in town! The Great Depression took its toll on the ballroom by 1933, when it began serving as a convention center, lifeguard headquarters and, for a brief period of time, the city jail. (A coastal storm would later destroy the facility.) By 1930 all rides, except the carousel, were gone.
The Santa Monica Yacht Harbor = Major FAIL
In 1933, Santa Monica boating enthusiasts passed a bond that would pay for the construction of a breakwater to create a yacht harbor that would not only allow boats to moor in the bay, but also protect the pier. Originally, the breakwater was to be constructed of concrete so beach-goers could walk on it, but when this technology failed, the town ended up building a wall of lightweight Catalina stone. Concrete had failed Santa Monicans once again!
Maybe they should have taken a lesson from the Ancient Romans. The Roman method of making cement involved volcanic ash, water and lime, processed at much lower temperatures than the modern method of manufacturing cement. This resulted in concrete that was less susceptible to cracking.
Poor engineering of the breakwater led to the sinking of the rock wall and, in 1982, violent winter storms washed away what was left. (These storms also damaged one-third of wooden pier.)
Though the rock wall is still there today, we could barely see it under the water’s surface. The good news? It’s now home to abundant ocean life!
After the devastating winter storm of 1983, renovations, which had already been planned before the storm, called for new concrete pilings (with much better technology than what had been used in the 1930s), concrete fishing decks and a classic, wooden deck. Plans also called for the first amusement park since 1930 and, in 1996, Pacific Park opened to the public.
No longer known as the Looff Pleasure Pier, the Santa Monica Pier still provides visitors with a full day of fun. Pacific Park tickets range from $5-$10 per ride, or you can purchase a wristband for unlimited rides at a price of $29.65 for ages 8 and older, or $16.15 for ages 7 and younger. Rides include the West Coaster, Pacific Wheel, Seaside Swing, Sea Dragon and more. Carnival games and food round out the fun.
Down the boardwalk from Pacific Park, located a floor below the merry-go-round, the Santa Monica Heal the Bay Aquarium exhibits more than 100 local species and offers hands-on activities for kids. Admission for ages 13 and older is $5 and ages 12 and younger are free.
The beaches surrounding the Santa Monica Pier can get a bit crowded, thanks to several local tours that make daily stops on the pier to drop tourists off for a chance to spend an hour or more in the area. School groups and campers also hang out there — like this group of neon T-shirt-clad summer campers.
But don’t take it from me. If you’re in Santa Monica — even for just an hour — stop by the Santa Monica Pier to get your kicks at the unofficial end of Route 66. The pier’s history and surrounding beauty is worth experiencing for yourself.