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Cal Porter's Then & Now


There are many famous opening lines from great works of literature: “It was a dark and stormy night”, Bulwer-Lytton, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens, “Call me Ishmael”, from Moby Dick, but ever was there a line more to the point than, “I Am Born”, in Chapter 1 of David Copperfield. So that’s where I will start. It happened to me in the year 1924, and by my calculation that makes me 91 this year. 

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The fun houses, the bamboo slides, the chute the chutes, and the bumper cars were all well and good and a lot of fun, but an amusement pier without a roller coaster was not a true amusement pier at all. At least that’s the way we kids thought. The roller coasters were the real attractions and the main reason for going out on the piers, along with our passion for jumping and diving off the piers for a swim. All the other enticements were merely side shows, supporting actors for the king of them all, the roller coaster. Just the names alone bring back the memories and excitement: The Blue Streak Racer, The Whirling Dipper, The Dragon Gorge, The Race Through the Clouds, The Toboggan Railroad. All the amusement piers in the north bay from Venice to Santa Monica had roller coasters, some more than one at a time. A lot of them were before my time but I knew many of them well. The southern end of Santa Monica Bay was a different story; its piers were for fishing, not amusements, only Redondo Beach had a roller coaster, and that was a long time ago.

The entrance to The Race Through The Clouds. Photo source:

The roller coaster is largely considered an American idea, and this is partly true, but it was really not invented here. In the 1600’s the Russians came up with an ice covered, lumber ramp that you could skid down in a box for an eighty foot drop, but the French were the ones who invented the first wheeled roller coaster in 1817. Later it was also their idea for wheels that were locked to the rails, certainly a must when you don’t want to leave the tracks while going fast and around curves, and it is still with us to this day. “The Father of the American Roller Coaster” was La Marcus Thompson, who as a kid got the bug after he took a fast ride on a rail cart full of coal straight down a hill from a mine to the railroad below. He constructed his first roller coaster at Coney Island in 1884 with a maximum speed of six miles an hour from a forty-five foot tower. The car had to be manually towed to the top of the tower. Within four years he had built fifty more in the United States, and his idea started the opening of amusement parks worldwide. Not much changed in the basic idea or the construction of the coaster until 1955 when Disney built The Matterhorn, the first all-steel roller coaster; the rest is history.

The Giant Dipper. Photo source:

My First
When I was young all roller coasters were made of wood. This made for a rattling, jerky, noisy ride that added to the thrill of it all. It always felt like the car was going to fall apart or jump off the track throwing you onto the beach or into the ocean below. The whole wooden framework of the ride itself would sway as the coaster careened around the curves. My first ride on a roller coaster was on The Giant Dipper which was on the south side of the Venice Pier overlooking the beach and ocean between the Venice and Sunset Piers. This is the beach where we hung out and did most of our swimming and surfing. The famous Ship Café was on the pier just beyond the coaster. The Giant Dipper was part of the scene at our beach hangout, we could always see it and we could always hear it, it was part of our world, and we boys often rode our very own coaster. I guess it was sometime in our teens when it finally dawned on us that the roller coaster could be even more fun if you had a girl along for the ride. The Dipper was built the year I was born, and it lasted right up to the time I got married and moved on to other beaches in 1946. When I left, the ride was torn down and gone forever. Some years before its demolition, a local character who always had a pipe in his mouth and had a red dog named “Red Dog”, would often search the dark wooden tunnel that the coaster would enter for a brief scary time after its initial straight-down plunge. After closing time, with his flashlight and red dog, he would look for the coins that frequently fell out of pockets and onto the tracks below as the car rocked back and forth in the pitch dark. But on one night of misjudgment he entered the tunnel before the last ride was over; he was known for doing a bit of drinking. No one saw him enter the tunnel and no one on the car could see him when the coaster hit him, and there in the darkness it was instantly over for the man with the pipe and dog. But not for his friend. I would see him around the waterfront for some time after, then I lost track of Red Dog.

The Blue Streak Racer roller coaster, Santa Monica Pier 1923. Photo source: Public domain

The Venice Pier had many other roller coasters through the years; the first one in 1910 had mountain scenery surrounding it. There were at least five more in various locations, one built right over the breakwater at the end of the pier. In Santa Monica the first one was built on the hillside overlooking the pier in 1887. It was a short ride and only went a few miles per hour for the guests of the old Arcadia Hotel. When I was a kid, the Whirlwind Dipper was on the pier, replacing the Blue Streak Racer that was there before it. Today on the pier there only remains a new and shiny kids’ roller coaster. The Ocean Park Pier had the most, at least nine during its history, some brought down by fires and other calamities. The first one was built alongside the pier in 1904; it was only thirty feet high. There were several others before I was born. Then when I was a kid, the first Ocean Park Giant Dipper was there, and then a second Giant Dipper was built in 1924 that lasted until 1931. I saw it but I don’t think I ever rode in it at my tender age, it was gone by the time I was seven, but then, maybe. But now we come to The High Boy, alias The Sea Serpent. I have to say, even though the Venice Pier Giant Dipper was my first, and my home coaster, my favorite has to be The High Boy, but I can explain. My older friend, Fuzzy, ran The High Boy. Not only was he in charge of the roller coaster, he was also invaluable during my stint as a teenage lifeguard on the very busy beach alongside the pier where he hung out during the daytime hours. Fuzzy could always be counted on to step in and settle fights, arguments, rumbles of various kinds, and the exploits of drunks who came down off the pier. He knew everybody there, was one tough guy, and I never saw anyone get the better of him. Now back to the roller coaster. Fuzzy would take the tickets, put the passengers in the cars and tell them where to sit, and then pull the big lever that released the brake allowing the car to take hold of the pulley and ascend the first seventy-five foot hill. Of course, one time the car, with me in it, made its way half way up the hill when it lost its grip on the cog wheels and coasted backwards at a pretty good rate of speed back to where we started. Scary, but not to worry, we made it on our next try. Today it would have been taken out of service for one long repair time. Anyway, since Fuzzy was my buddy, and I rode often and free, and he was in charge of the seating arrangements, I somehow found myself frequently seated with one or two attractive girls who didn’t seem to have escorts. I will forever be indebted to my friend Fuzzy for his concern and kind attention to this matter.

High Boy. Photo source:

So where are all the beach roller coasters today? Gone, of course, all gone, along with the piers, bath houses, plunges and beach clubs. The only ones on the beach anywhere now that I know of, and both far away from Santa Monica Bay, are the 85 year old Santa Cruz Coaster up north and the equally old San Diego coaster that was named a national landmark and reopened after many years of inactivity. I have ridden on both of these. Then there is the gentle, kids’ coaster on the Santa Monica Pier, the only amusement pier left. But then I suppose these old rides would be considered pretty tame today compared with the modern, inland roller coasters at places like Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm where the coasters reach heights of 456 feet and travel upside down while attaining speeds of 128 miles per hour. I would have to be paid a good bit of money to board one of these speedsters today, but I can tell you there was nothing quite like the experience of riding in the old rickety, creaky, rumbling, wooden roller coasters with the cool salt air in your face, and seeing all the people on the beach or pier below you having fun and hollering and waving up to you. And, oh yes, having a girl along was not too bad either.

Submitted By Cal Porter on March 23 , 2009

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