By Cal Porter
Poling a raft down a waterway to get to school? Sounds like something right out of Mark Twain. Maybe Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer did it. But in more modern times? Not very likely. But the fact is my friend Bob and I did it; and we did it many times to reach our elementary school in Venice, California in the early 1930’s.
Above: A Venice Canal, the Early Days
When I was a kid growing up in the 1920’s Venice was a town based on canals. They ran just inland from the beach to all parts of the city. These many waterways with romantic names like Venus, Coral, Altair and Grand Canal culminated at the large Venice Lagoon in the center of town. This is where thousands of spectators would gather in the grandstands to watch swimming and boating races and to see lifeguard Jake Cox perform high diving stunts from a lofty platform in the middle of the lagoon. The lagoon was surrounded by hotels, restaurants, boating concessions, a miniature railway and an amusement park complete with roller coaster. This is where the popular gondola rides set out with a gondolier standing in the stern singing and poling the tourists through the colorful waterways. Excavation had started on the canals in 1904 and they were finished and filled with ocean water by the grand opening of Venice, California on the
Fourth of July, 1905. All of this was under the vision and supervision of founder Abbot Kinney who had dreamt of a Venice of America ever since he had seen the other Venice on his travels to Italy. Bungalows, cabanas and homes were built along the canals. Colorful plant life and trees were introduced and flourished. The canals became an attraction where people wanted to live and tourists wanted to vacation. But there was only one little problem with these picturesque canals; they never really worked very well. The flow of fresh ocean water that came in and out with the tides from a distant inlet down the coast a couple of miles never circulated properly. The water level became low and stagnant in some places, there were occasional sewage overflows, mosquitoes thrived.
Above: Filling in the Canals, 1929
Twenty years later as the 1920’s started to draw to a close and automobiles had multiplied and crowded the few roads in Venice, the canals had gradually fallen into disrepair and a decision was made to fill in the major ones and pave them over. Dump trucks were soon busily discharging load after load of dirt into the waterways, followed by paving equipment to finish the job. Few of the streets retained the colorful names of the canals beneath them, but Grand Canal became Grand Boulevard. The circular Venice Lagoon where so many exciting events took place in earlier years became a traffic circle, with the Venice Main Post Office built on the west side where the roller coaster once stood. The only canals that escaped the fill-in were the minor ones on the south side of town beyond Venice Boulevard. I have only sketchy memories of Venice in those glory days with all the gondolas and gondoliers plying the waters through the heart of Venice since I was a very young kid at the time. My memories are mostly of the six smaller canals that escaped the fate of the others and are still there to this day. Which brings us to the point of this story of the early 1930’s.
Above: Original 13 Canals. Only the Six Small Canals on the Right Remain Today.
Our School was at Far Right on Grand Canal.
My friend and classmate Bob lived in one of the original bungalows on the waterfront of Carroll Canal, fourth from the right on the map. I lived on the beach in Playa del Rey a few miles south of Venice. Our school was the Florence Nightingale Elementary School built on the sand near the corner of Washington Boulevard and the beach. We attended there from 1929 to 1935, kindergarten through sixth grade. On school mornings I often made my way to Bob’s house from my house on the big, red Pacific Electric Streetcars that ran along the coast, or by being dropped off by my father on the way to his office. Bob and I would then journey to school together. The usual method was to walk the half mile or so to school, but we devised another method that was surely more fun but took a good bit more time; we built a raft. We gathered up boards and planks and scraps of lumber from the neighborhood and managed to put them together with ropes and nails into quite a seaworthy craft. A couple of sturdy bamboo poles were utilized for forward propulsion and we were ready to go. To reach school we would pole toward the ocean on Carroll Canal and under the car bridge at Dell Avenue, and then under the foot bridge just before we took a left turn on what remained of Grand Canal. Down Grand Canal we would continue poling until we passed Linnie Canal, and then under another foot bridge before reaching Howland and Sherman Canals. Grand Canal then passed directly behind our school toward its final destination beyond Marina del Rey (which was then a swamp) and on to Ballona Creek where it flowed into the ocean. All we had to do was beach our raft on the muddy bank behind school and we were there.
Above: An Example of Expert Raft Construction, 1929
Nightingale School was unique in that it was built on sand. Our playground was sand. All games were played on sand: baseball, kickball, dodge ball, touch football and all the rest. It was here that I achieved fame and glory by capturing the school championship in high jumping by catapulting myself off the concrete walkway and over the cross bar at an unheard of height and landing in the sand beyond. Because of this sandy environment it was commonplace for some of the kids who lived along the beach to come to school barefoot. My mother saw to it that I always wore shoes to school but one time it was fortunate that the above custom was acceptable. Not far on our journey down the canal from Bob’s house one morning my bamboo pole got stuck in the muddy bottom and would not come loose, and by not letting go of said pole I ended up in the water with it; and with my school clothes on. Back to Bob’s house we went in order to doff my wet clothes and don some borrowed duds from Bob. I looked ridiculous since he was much taller than I. But as for his shoes, none would stay on since they were many sizes beyond my proper fit. Thus I became a barefoot school boy, albeit temporarily, but I realized then why so many of my classmates preferred this way of life.
All of this was over 75 years ago. The school is gone, hasn’t been there for some sixty years. The area is now completely crowded with shops and restaurants and high-rise condos, and the boat marina itself. Bob’s original bungalow is still there on Carroll Canal, but it is alone and surrounded by large, beautiful, modern homes with luxuriant landscaping. This is considered to be one of “the” places to live on the west side. Even the star and his son of the TV series Baywatch lived on the canals in the show.
One thing hasn’t changed much, and that is what’s left of the Grand Canal itself, beautiful and spruced up in the residential section but not looking so grand at all in other places. In fact it hasn’t changed a bit where it flowed behind Florence Nightingale Elementary. We could easily beach our raft on the very same muddy bank today. There the canal looks much the same as it did in 1905 when the gates were first opened and water rushed up the dry bed on its way to join and fill the dozen other canals in the heyday of Venice of America.
By Cal Porter