By Delores Hanney
Always flush with imaginative ideas and the cash to fund them, Abbot Kinney – the milieu-maker of Venice, California – liked to do things with a flair. One of the most winning notions he brought into being, for his Italian-inspired settlement by the sea, was a pair of miniature trains. They were here from the very beginning in 1905, chugging over arching concrete bridges that spanned the canalways while circumnavigating the town site with frequent regularity. Initially they were tasked as the mode of transportation for schlepping prospective buyers of real property to check out the development’s offerings. Before long locals and vacationers were big enthusiasts of the five-cent service as well.
Even as Kinney’s ambitious Venice-of-America was still about the business of rising out of a marsh, he contracted with civil engineer John J. Coit to supervise the building of his Venice Miniature Railway made up of components similar to Coit’s own diminutive train then causing gladness at Eastlake Park in Los Angeles. Kinney commissioned two of them. Built by the Johnson Machine Works out of L.A. to a one-third scale, each consisted of a black Prairie-type engine and five 12-passenger cars that sometimes offered an al fresco ride, other times carried travelers beneath a fringed, awning-like top. Each one of the cars sported a lion’s head relief on the sides. And for a time, the dashing little engine from Coit’s Eastlake train lent a hand in Venice as a substitute.
By way of enrolling his younger kids into a kind of participation in the beachside resort venture, Kinney’s nine-year old son Carlton was listed as president of the Venice Miniature Railway on its State of California incorporation documents. Three years older, son Inne,s was named as Chief Engineer, though John Coit actually operated the railroad early on. Jauntily suited up in appropriately impressive uniforms, the boys were trotted out to take bows on ceremonial occasions or for visitations by dignitaries. One such event – in 1908 – was the gathering of 140 midwestern members of the National Association of Railroad Agents, at which time the annual inspection of Kinney’s Miniature Railway was executed for their edification.
A dog showed up one day and rapidly self-appointed himself as the mini railroad’s mascot. Buster Braun was a Spitz that had become dissatisfied with the situation at home after his people brought home a newborn baby. Hanging out at the roundhouse and riding atop the tender as the train percolated around town – at a normal cruising speed of 20 miles per hour – apparently alleviated the loving-attention deficit the new home conditions caused and gratified his breed’s natural herding instinct hereby undertaken, nontraditionally, with a rumbling mechanical assist.
Over the years the railway suffered a few modest catastrophes. Train number two smashed into an unseen-till-too-late grocery wagon witlessly left on the tracks. A boiler explosion took out engine number one as it was parked at the Windward Avenue turnaround. On another occasion a fire at the roundhouse caused heat damage to both engines when flames engulfed the building. The passenger cars were successfully hauled off to a safe spot. None of these resulted in human harm but a horse was hurt in the train-wagon collision.
On a more ebullient note, the miniature railway was a not unusual element in Kinney’s recurrent hosting of orphans for a day of jolly good fun in Venice: amusement-parking, hunting Easter eggs or whatever. The pintsized trains performed as a prop in train robbery spoofs carried out by passels of comely beachwear-clad cuties.
Though lacking the current tug of nostalgia blocked by their au courant status in Kinney’s time, trains still ranked high in appeal factor. Miniature trains, then as now, packed a special cachet. The photogenic images of the little Venice trains adorned copious quantities of postcards that were sent to friends and family by happy visitors and residents alike. They made tasty bait for attracting even more tourists and new dwellers to Abbot Kinney’s dream, where their own sprightly presence added to the environment’s inimitable élan.
They breathed their final chug as a Venice, California feature in February of 1925.
By Delores Hanney