The Past as Prologue

Marina del Rey, like much of the City of Angels , has a rich and colorful history - it’s just not all that old.   The harbor at the heart of the community of Marina del Rey is a splendid example of a successful Army Corps of Engineers project; funded and planned cooperatively by the Federal government, Los Angeles County and private developers, it' the largest man-made marina in the United States , with over 5,000 small-boat slips.  

Blessed with a temperate climate and stunning beaches, Marina del Rey, an unincorporated district of Los Angeles County with a population just over 8,000, began as a dream that, to paraphrase Marcel Proust, became an address.   The Shoshone and Gabrieleno/Tongva Indians were the region’s first residents, living along the bluffs above the ocean, the neighborhood’s first fishermen and hunters, but by no means the last. Eventually they shared the land and sea, the good duck hunting and steel-head trout fishing, with the Spanish and eventually the first Angelenos.  

The dream that eventually became modern Marina del Rey began in 1887 when a developer named M.C. Wicks, ironically working under the auspices of a railroad, the Santa Fe, sought to create a commercial harbor for the city of Los Angeles from the estuary and inlets of the village of Playa del Rey. Three years, one wharf-destroying storm and $300,000 later, Wicks’ Port Ballona Development Company – the name probably derived from “la ballena,” Spanish for whale - was bankrupt and the ducks and hunters resumed their seasonal pas de deux.    

The Carnival Next-Door

Not long after Wicks’ fall, immediately north of Playa a visionary named Abbot Kinney had his own dream: the creation of a cultural and recreational haven on the ocean, complete with an extensive system of canals and bridges modeled on a certain sea-surrounded Italian paradise in the blue Adriatic . Kinney magnificently pulled off his ambitious artistic vision and Venice-by-the Sea, later shortened to Venice - present-day Marina del Rey’s boisterous, never-boring, neighbor to the immediate north - came to life. Venice blossomed into the Coney Island-amusement-park-of-the-west for some thirty years, faded in mid-20 th century, then rebounded into brilliant, bohemian life in the 1960s which continues on today to its own lively drumbeat.  

Today, world-famous Venice Beach is home to painters and poets, muscle builders and performance artists, street vendors and eccentrics of every conceivable stripe – think New York ’s Greenwich Village with good weather and tans.   A modest portion of Kinney’s grand scheme of canals and bridges charmingly remains to this day, just north of the foot of Washington Boulevard .    

We Harbor No Grudges  

Over the seventy-some odd years after Wicks’ thwarted attempt, the idea of a harbor in the area experienced various governmental and private development starts and stops. In 1936 – to the everlasting gratitude of today’s locals - the region lost the commercial harbor debate to southern neighbor San Pedro, now the home of Los Angeles Harbor and the city’s main, and the West Coast’s, largest port.  

During the intervening years preceding the 1950s construction that created the harbor and the community of Marina del Rey, regional history was busily, if sporadically, being made in the area. We were wetlands back then, even though the locals called it swamp. Early automotive races, sometimes featuring one of the sport’s first stars, Barney Oldfield, ran from Playa del Rey to Venice along a roadway on the Marina peninsula now appropriately named Speedway .   Pacific Electric ran its famed Red Car line here.   Beneath the rails and marshes it turned out there was black gold and plenty of it. Beginning in the 1920s, oil rigs came pumping to rhythmic life, dotting the landscape with iron skeletons as far as the camera could see.    

As recently as 1968, on the very spot where the author’s car nightly rests, a working oil rig pumped merrily, if not all that productively, day and night. All the rigs are gone now, replaced by volleyball nets, bungalows and beach front apartments, life guard stands and surf and bike shops.  

The marshlands didn’t stop the legendary, eccentric multi-millionaire aviator Howard Hughes from re-locating his Hughes Tool Company in 1940 to over a thousand acres in the nearby Ballona Wetlands. There he constructed Hughes Airport (with the world’s longest runway, nearly two miles) and built the famous “Spruce Goose,” a huge wooden aircraft/albatross that flew only one time and not very long, with its chagrinned creator at the stick.  

The anchorage that became Marina del Rey’s raison d’etre finally started fast-tracking in 1949 when the Army Corps of Engineers submitted an elaborate $23 million plan for a marina with the capability of mooring over eight thousand small craft boats. The fast track went warp speed in 1954 when President Dwight David Eisenhower signed Public Law 780, making the Marina del Rey harbor an authorized federal project.   As the project neared completion, a vicious 1962-63 winter storm demonstrated that the channel leading into the harbor proper was vulnerable to strong wave action. Baffles, lying perpendicular to the channel, were quickly installed, and then later replaced with a bouldered jetty that protects the channel today.    

What’s In a Name?

Marina del Rey translates from the Spanish as “Harbor of the King” and if that seems a tad grandiose consider the following: One of the definitions of king is “best example of its kind.” So, adding a dose of humility, the designation Marina del Rey simply says, ‘This is a pretty darn good harbor.’   And it certainly is that.  

Centuries removed, the area where the King’s Harbor now proudly rules was the mouth of the Los Angeles River . Eventually the river shifted course, south to Long Beach and Los Alamitos Bay , leaving a two mile-wide body of water called Del Rey Lagoon. In 1839 the lagoon was, ironically, awarded as a “land” grant by the Mexican government to two pairs of brothers, Ynacio and Augustin Machado and Felipe and Tomas Talamantes.  

By the time the project which would create modern Marina del Rey began the lagoon awkwardly carried the name “The Playa del Rey Inlet and Harbor of Venice , CA. ”.   A Los Angeles County Supervisor, Burton Chace, long a champion and developer of the city’s coastline, decided a new, more euphonious appellation was badly needed. By some accounts, and the history is fuzzy here, it was Chace who came up with the Marina del Rey moniker. Whether he did or did not, Burton Chace definitely was its leading advocate, and an adroit and convincing one at that.  

It took eight years of indefatigable lobbying before the man today credited as the “Father of the Marina ” prevailed. The good news came in the form of a Western Union telegram to Chace from a Democratic California congressman who happened to be the son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  

Dated January 25th, 1962 the telegram read:   “Happy To Advise Senate Passed H.R. 157 Today To Change Name To Marina Del Rey. President’s Signature Expected in Due Course. – James Roosevelt.”  

Marina del Rey was officially born shortly thereafter when President John F. Kennedy signed H.R. 157 into law. The final piece of the puzzle in place, the Marina harbor, was dedicated on July 10, 1965, the surrounding community becoming identified as Marina del Rey. The area quickly flourished, initially gaining recognition as a singles destination, then maturing into a well-rounded community that is also a singularly convenient resort destination.  

Water, Water, Everywhere

All history is living and our Marina offers lots of opportunities to create your own. If you love the water, Marina del Rey is the place to be. On-the-sea recreational opportunities abound, from harbor and Santa Monica Bay cruises, sail and power boat rentals and charters, to half and full day local fishing trips in pursuit of halibut, as well as yellowfin tuna, perch, barracuda, rockfish, cod, mackerel, shark and sea bass. There’s surprisingly good whale watching and ever present dolphins, harbor seals, and sea lions.    

In 1998 a young grey whale, umbilical cord still attached, washed ashore in Marina del Rey. Local residents sprang into action, dousing the whale with life-saving sea water until authorities arrived. The whale was transported to San Diego ’s Sea World and nursed back to health. Fourteen months later “JJ” the whale was released and joined a pod of northward emigrating whales.  

Waves hit our beaches approximately 6,000 times a day, about every 14 seconds, which makes for fine beach combing in a shell-rich environment. Find a sand dollar on the tide line and you’re at peace with the world. Surf, boogie board, swim and frolic in the sea, with the Santa Monica Mountains a green backdrop. Often you’ll be able to see Mt. Baldy , 50 miles from the beach and half the year capped with snow. Or bird watch, being sure not to miss the magnificent brown pelicans gliding with pre-historic grace before plummeting into the ocean in search of a meal.   Visit nearby Venice and its “ Muscle Beach ” - and no, Dorothy, you’re definitely not in Kansas - and prepare for state-of-the-art ogling opportunities. Climb on a two-wheeler and hit the bike path. Go rollerblading. Visit picturesque Burton Chace Park or tranquil Mother’s Beach. Wear flip-flops and sarongs and Hawaiian shirts day and night.  

“It Never Rains In Southern California ” claimed singer/songwriter Albert Hammond in 1972 – but it does, just not very much. Enjoy our Marina , perhaps briefly reminding yourself of other, less hospitable climes, then consider this:   You were meant to be here.