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A Short History Of Venice, Which Used To Be An Oilfield

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Venice Beach (Courtesy of the USC Libraries)

Originally called "Venice of America," Venice was founded in 1905 by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney as a 14-mile beach resort town. He constructed the area on beachy marshland, and for that many called it "Kinney's Folly." Despite the non-believers, Kinney dredged the land "and built a system of canals navigated by gondoliers. The pier he erected boasted carnival attractions like roller coasters and fun houses, a ballroom, cafes and later an aquarium."

Charlie Chaplin even developed his "Little Tramp" character there (see video).

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"Birdseye view of Venice looking out over the canals and lagoon, 1924. (Courtesy of the USC Libraries)

Come the 1920s it was incorporated into Los Angeles, and being tapped for black gold. As Gizmodo has noted, "Through much of the 20th century, oil derricks towered over homes, schools, golf courses, and even orange groves across the Los Angeles Basin... But perhaps nowhere was the change as striking as at the region's beaches." In Venice, the canals Kinney built were being filled in, and worst of all the beach was converted into an oilfield.


Venice oilfields. (Courtesy of the USC Libraries)

In 1929, the Ohio Oil Company took over just as the town was about to go under, building a well just east of the Grand Canal, one of the two north-south canals bordering the now coveted and historic residential district. According to Atlas Obscura, it was producing 3000 barrels of oil per day, "the news spread like wildfire, and oil fever commenced, with residents mobbing City Hall demanding re-zoning to allow for more drilling." This was during the Depression, after all. By the next year there were 50 wells, producing $75,000 a week.

There were immediate environmental and safety issues, with "oil waste flooding the lagoons and blackening the once-lovely canals with sludge. Schools near the wells were closed for safety reasons and the beach was horribly polluted." Still, drilling continued through 1932. It then took one decade to get 48 million barrels of "bubbling crude out of the shoreline." By the 1950s, the neglected area was called the "Slum by the Sea."


Surfers heading into the water near the ruins of the Pacific Ocean Park pier, ca.1960-1979. (Courtesy of the USC Libraries)

By the 1970s most of the wells were capped and by the 1990s the beach oilfield was finally depleted. In 1991, the LA Times reported that "the last remaining oil wells on Venice Beach are capped, the Houston company that operated them is in financial trouble and the city of Los Angeles may get stuck spending $2 million to restore the one-acre patch to beach-goers." There were 10 wells left at that time near the Venice Pavilion.

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Today, you can still see signs of the oil industry all over Los Angeles, including at the Beverly Center, which was developed on a former oil site.