Amusement Pier Fires
Revised April 6, 1998
The two biggest dangers to Venice and Ocean Park's amusement piers were fires and ocean storms. While most resort builders resist the urge to place their amusement attractions on enormous piers, Venice and Ocean Park had little choice. When Abott Kinney and his partners built their seaside resort, they never envisioned allotting space on the beach for an amusement park. The hoped to attract Los Angeles' upper class to buy beach lots for summer homes and they envisioned entertainment as more refined. They built a pleasure pier for fishing and later added a Casino restaurant beside it. It wasn't until 1904 that Ingersol installed the first permanent ride, a toboggan railroad.
When Kinney built his Venice of America tract as a canalled seaside town and as a cultural Renaissance city, his idea of entertainment was a Chautauqua assembly. Visitors could attend a summer six week series of educational lectures by historians, evangelists, poets and authors in his 3000 seat auditorium located on his Windward Avenue pier. But Kinney soon discovered that visitors would rather play hooky and instead play on the nearby beach. Since the narrow beach between the Venice and Ocean Park Piers (three quarter miles apart) had been dedicated to the city as a park, Kinney and his ex-partners had little choice but to expand their piers and place amusement attractions on them.
Actually they feared winter storms more than fire. During construction of Venice in 1905, two winter storms only six weeks apart, almost totally wrecked Kinney's new Windward Avenue Pier. The beach was one vast pile of driftwood and damages were set at $50,000. The Ocean Park pier was totally destroyed. Kinney then spent $100,000 to protect it with a stone breakwater. Although the sea wall was effective, his pier sustained damage in a series of winter storms in 1913-14.
Pier owners felt that fire, on the other hand could be either prevented or contained once it started. Although the wooden piers were built over water, buildings were constructed cheaply; wood framed and covered by lathe and plaster. Kinney made sure there were plenty of fire hydrants on his pier and he built a fire house nearby.
Abbot Kinney Pier (Venice) - 1908
Fire fighters saved the Abbott Kinney Pier when a fire broke out in the Venice Theater at midnight October 26th. The fire, caused by faulty electrical wiring, spread to nearby booths and for a time threatened the nearby Dance Hall. Damage was only $6000.
Fraser Pier Fire (Ocean Park) - 1912
Fire broke out on Fraser's Million Dollar Pier in Ocean Park on September 3, 1912, only fifteen months after it was built. Diners first noticed smoke in the Casino restaurant as flames from the kitchen erupted through the roof. The fire had started in the Japanese servant's quarters located in its basement. Someone had carelessly tossed a smoldering cigarette in some bedding.
A strong late afternoon breeze fanned the flames. Sparks leapt two
hundred feet high and fell like a fiery bath over the flimsy painted
canvas and light wooden grill work that adorned the pier's attractions.
Within minutes cries of "Fire!" were sounded from a dozen different
directions. More than a thousand visitors, a hundred couples at the Dance Hall
alone, were still on the pier and heading for the two main exits when the
Skating Rink across from the Casino caught fire and blocked one of the exits.
The first firemen to arrive were only able to aim a few puny streams of water on the fire until Venice's high pressure system was used. The prompt arrival of Los Angeles' fire companies in only 27 minutes did little to contain the blaze.
Those trapped on the pier were panic stricken. Some, including Fraser and his young son managed to reach the pier's docks and escaped by boat. Others leapt into the sea. One courageous policeman risked almost certain death to rescue two trapped little girls. He and the girls plunged to safety through a sheet of flames, but he was badly burned on his face and hands.
Flames quickly spread north to the Dragon Gorge amusements and burned the uninsured $200,000 structure within a few minutes as 100,000 spectators watched. The fire then crossed Ocean Front Walk and set fire to the buildings facing the pier. Building tenants retreated as the fire advanced, each carrying as much of their personal valuables to safety. The fire relentlessly consumed the entire five city block business district all the way to Trolley Way. Seven hundred fire fighters from twelve fire companies were powerless to stop it. Dynamite was set in a plan to create a fire break when the wind slackened and then shifted seaward at 8:30 P.M. The danger was over and the fire was contained after three hours and thirty five minutes.
The fire totally destroyed the pier, all the amusements and five square blocks of the business district. In all 225 structures burned, two people died, several were missing, 75 people were injured and 800 people were homeless. The loss was set at $2,000,000 with little of it insured.
Fraser Pier Fire (Ocean Park) - 1915
A fire broke out in the Dance Pavilion at the seaward end of the Fraser Pier at 1 A.M. just as Christmas ended. The night watchman discovered the blaze in the check room and immediately called for help. The fire, fanned by a slight breeze, began its march up the pier. It consumed the Pioneer Bowling Alleys, Eskimo Village, Paris by Night, numerous concession booths and half the Ben Hur roller coaster before the combined fire fighting brigades of three beach communities stopped it behind the Rosemary Theater.
The fire was thought to be arson. A concessionaire saw two men in a boat rowing away from the pier shortly before the blaze spread, but nothing was proven.
Abbot Kinney Pier Fire (Venice) - 1920
The night of December 20th was a cool night on the pier, where at 9:30 P.M. people were huddled around a gas heater in one of the upstairs loges of the Dance Pavilion. Suddenly the heater burst open and flames leaped to the nearby curtains, then to the roof timbers. There was no panic and the dancers downstairs left quickly. Ten minutes later the roof collapsed. Arthur Ranse, a volunteer fire fighter, was on the roof when it caved in. He was hurled into the seething furnace, but was rescued by some of the dancers and lay dying in a nearby hospital.
Flames spread quickly to the adjoining Virginia Reel, then to the
Racing Derby and Auditorium. Firefighters dipped their hoses into the
nearby Plunge and Venice Lagoon. By 10 P.M. with the wind blowing towards
shore, fire fighters conceded that the fire was out of control. Warnings
were sent to all the merchants across Ocean Front Walk and the hotels along
Windward Avenue to evacuate.
Firemen used dynamite in a futile attempt to stop the fire at the pier's outer boundary. When this failed, Venice firemen, reinforced by fire companies from Santa Monica and Los Angeles, set up a mighty barrage of water to save the Ocean Front buildings. All seemed lost when suddenly the wind shifted and blew offshore at 11:30 P.M.
The next morning the pier was a smoldering ruin. All the pier's
structures except the newly built roller coaster and the bandstand tower
adjacent to Ocean Front Walk survived. Damages ran to a million dollars, with
little of it insured. It was a bleak Christmas.
Pickering & Lick Piers Fire (Ocean Park) - 1924
The early Sunday morning January 6th pier fire was believed to have started at 9:30 A.M. in the Ritz Cafe kitchen, but this didn't explain how the fire spread so quickly. Some thought that rubbish was set ablaze beneath the pier near the restaurant.
When fire fighters arrived, they laid hoses, but before the water
could be turned on, flames burst up from beneath the pier and the hoses
burned. Another fire truck broke and the water stopped.
The wind was blowing and it looked like all of Ocean Park was threatened. Rumors that they were going to use dynamite scattered the huge crowd that lined up on every street and on the beach to watch. Ten fire companies fought the blaze. Luckily the Dome Theater's concrete structure at the northeast corner of the pier contained the fire, and prevented it from leaping across Ocean Front Walk. The fire was contained by 11:45 A.M.
The losses were enormous, $2,000,000 with only $100,000 insured.
Both the Rosemary and Dome Theaters were destroyed (the later a $500,000
loss) and all the pier's rides and attractions. Only the sea end of Prior
and Church's brand new Giant Dipper roller coaster remained.
Pacific Ocean Park Pier Fires (Ocean Park) - 1970 through 1973
Pacific Ocean Park went bankrupt in 1967. The rides and attractions were auctioned off in 1968. Except for a few restaurants along Ocean Front Walk, and the old Aragon Ballroom which was converted in 1967 into the Cheetah Club, the park was shuttered and its empty buildings were off limits.
The first of many arson fires was on December 29, 1969. The seaward end of the pier burned while two dozen firemen fought the blaze. Then six months later on May 27, 1970 a midnight fire destroyed the Aragon Ballroom and the Lick Pier while thousands watched. At one point on-shore winds bore leaping embers 1000 feet on nearby Venice buildings. Young transients, as many as 12-20 who were living in several of the pier's structures and under the pier were suspected of arson. Some were missing and police thought that several bodies were in the ruins. But because the fire burned so hot, traces of their bodies were never found.
Another arson fire on August 30, 1971 burned the old Egyptian
Ballroom. Then on December 6th, fire consumed the roller coaster ride
building and maintenance shack. The sixth major fire on March 17, 1973
in a midnight fire destroyed the end 300 feet of the pier and was allowed
to burn itself out while 1000 spectators watched. Fires continued on a
regular basis, each nibbling away at what remained of the pier.
Finally Santa Monica in the interest of safety on February 14, 1974 ordered the pier removed. But before they could proceed the largest fire in years on July 12th burned most of that night and all of the following day. By the time it burned itself out, the old Casino Garden building was gutted and only 30% of the original pier remained. The pier was totally demolished that winter. The only indication that a pier once stood on that spot is a sign warning people not to swim there due to possible underwater hazards. If you search out the spot, it is that wide empty beach between the Rose Avenue parking lot in Venice and the Ocean Park Beach parking lot in Santa Monica.