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A unique shot of the rides at Pacific Park on Santa Monica Pier
A unique shot of the rides at Pacific Park on Santa Monica Pier | © Christian Medrano / Unspalsh
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The Story Behind L.A.’s Iconic Santa Monica Pier

Picture of Dominic Bertolami
Freelance writer
Updated: 25 April 2018
Few landmarks in Los Angeles are as recognizable as the Santa Monica Pier, seen on television, in films and music videos for decades. People from all over the world come to experience the various rides or simply check out the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. What some people may not know is the history of this famous marker, which is riddled with both triumph and tragedy.
Santa Monica is the end of famed U.S. Hwy. Route 66 | © Ann Kathrin Bopp / Unsplash

The beginning

The Santa Monica Municipal Pier first opened to the public on September 9, 1909. First built to meet the sanitation needs of a growing city, the pier quickly attracted the local fishing community and people enjoying a festive day of music, swimming races or a simple stroll along the water. Soon, local entrepreneurs began to wonder how they could make a profit from this opportunity.

Over the course of just a few years, plans to build an amusement pier next to the Municipal Pier began to emerge. When the well-known carousel manufacturer Charles I.D. Looff arrived in Santa Monica in February 1916, he immediately purchased the land just south of the Municipal Pier for developmental purposes. He soon created Santa Monica’s first successful string of amusement rides, including The Looff Hippodrome, which houses the pier’s carousel and still stands today. The carousel, built in 1922, features 44 hand-carved wooden horses.

The Ferris wheel at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier | © Cédric Dhaenens / Unsplash

The early years

When Looff passed away in 1918, his family ran the pier until 1923; they sold it to the Santa Monica Amusement Company, a group of imaginative businessmen intent on expanding on the Looff family dream. The company replaced the original roller coaster, the Blue Streak Racer, with the Whirlwind Dipper, which was both larger and faster. They also added to the richest chapter in the pier’s history, creating the La Monica Ballroom—a colossal, ornate music venue and dance hall. In 1948, the famed music star Spade Cooley began televising a weekly program from the ballroom, the first show of its kind.

Since the pier’s conception, it was a popular idea that a yacht harbor would make the perfect companion to the pier, and in 1933, the Santa Monica Yacht Harbor opened. This man-made wharf housed fishing boats, yachts, and a cruise liner that traveled to Catalina. For six years, mobster Tony Cornero also used it to shuttle people to his offshore gambling operations.

The Santa Monica Pier Businessmen’s Association installed the famous neon sign at the top of the pier ramp in 1940 | © Gerson Repreza / Unsplash

A new era

In 1943, Walter Newcomb, manager of operations at the pier and owner of both the arcade and the gift shop, purchased the Looff Amusement Pier. His family owned the amusement pier for the next 40 years, until later selling it to Santa Monica in the early 1970s.

In the 1950s, Enid Newcomb suggested to a family friend named Morris “Pops” Gordon that he should try and persuade his two sons to purchase and operate the pier’s arcade. The Gordon family took the advice, and the Playland Arcade is now the pier’s longest-running enterprise, providing inexpensive entertainment to a diverse crowd.

The pier managed to carry on through the 1950s and ’60s, though many of the other famous piers in the area closed due to the success of larger more expensive inland theme parks such as Disneyland. By 1973, the Santa Monica City Council slated the pier for destruction in favor of a man-made island which would host a resort. The people of Santa Monica fought to keep their beloved pier alive, and after much public outrage, the Council rescinded their plans.

The roller coaster, named West Coaster, at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier | © Matthew LeJune / Unsplash

The 1980s–Present Day

Despite the people’s efforts to save the pier, in 1983, a pair of violent winter storms destroyed over one-third of it. In response to the community, the city soon formed the Pier Restoration and Development Task Force to oversee the reconstruction and operations of the pier. By April 1990, the entire western structure had been rebuilt.

In 1996, the Pacific Park® opened the first full-scale amusement park on the pier since the 1930s. The new West Coaster replaced the Whirlwind Dipper, which let off its last customers over six decades earlier. Today, the Santa Monica Pier draws over four million visitors annually, and its original carousel still offers old-fashioned entertainment for under a dollar. This popular recreational locale serves as a reminder of the past.