By Jay Turner for PCGS ……
1933 SC$1 HK-687 Aluminum Santa Monica Breakwater PCGS MS62
A trip to the beach, the smell of the ocean air, the feel of sand on your feet, the sound of the waves continually crashing… This timeless tradition is but a rare experience for some and a daily occurrence for others. Yet, one medallic issue commemorates and depicts a beach day in 1933 for one of Southern California’s most popular beaches, the Santa Monica Pier and breakwater.
By the time the medal issued for the commemoration of the opening of the Santa Monica breakwater was minted and issued in 1933, the pier had already seen a long and interesting history. Piers on the East Coast of the United States had been popular destinations for people looking to spend the day having fun and enjoying various amusements. Other pier projects had appeared on the California coast to bring this experience to the people of the West Coast, and it was decided by the city of Santa Monica that building a municipal pier would be in the city’s best interest, so construction began in 1908.
After six months of construction and at a cost of $100,000, the pier opened to the public in 1909.
It started at the foot of Colorado Avenue measuring 1,600 feet long with a width of 30 feet and a height of 21 feet above the tide level. Opening on September 9, the 59th anniversary of California being admitted into the Union of the United States, over 1,000 people showed up to walk out onto the pier for the opening. Along with fishing and swimming, this festive occasion saw concerts played all day long. Two United States cruiser ships, USS St. Louis (C-20) and USS Albany (CL-23), were stationed on the pier for people to be able to board and tour.
Upon the closing of the opening day ceremonies, a show in which an actor portraying Neptune (the Roman god of the sea) stepped out declaring he would destroy the pier, at which point an actress portraying Queen Santa Monica appeared to declare that Neptune had no power to do so as the pier was made of concrete; dejected, Neptune jumped off the pier into the ocean defeated by the man-made concrete pier and Queen Santa Monica.
At first, the pier had no definitive attractions, but it quickly grew into a popular fishing spot – particularly for the large black sea bass then abundant in the area and weighing over 500 pounds. Charles I.D. Looff, who had constructed carousels for Coney Island, had relocated to California and saw the crowds of people the pier attracted, sans amusements, and realized the addition of such could turn Santa Monica into another Coney Island, making himself rich in the process.
In 1916, Looff purchased the land immediately south of the Municipal Pier and developed it into an amusement park. Looff got permission to link his pier to the Municipal Pier and opened his new amusement park in August 1916.
The Looff Pleasure Pier included the Blue Streak Racer rollercoaster, a ride called “The Whip”, a carousel, and The Hippodrome. Along with the rides, Looff Pleasure Pier included bowling, billiards, live music, picnic areas, and a funhouse. The Looff Pleasure Pier was an instant success, but following his death in 1918, the family stopped building and upkeep on the park.
In 1919, two large naval ships that were anchored at the pier broke the structure when the concrete failed to hold them, shutting down the entire pier. It was discovered that rust had developed and destroyed the concrete pillars. With the pier now closed, attendance at the Looff Pleasure Pier dried up and in 1923 it was sold by the family to the Santa Monica Amusement Company.
Under the new management of the Santa Monica Amusement Company, the former Looff Pleasure Pier, now called Ocean Park, was updated to include a new roller coaster called “The Whirlwind Dipper” and the 15,000-square-foot La Monica Ball Room, the largest ballroom in the United States at the time. The ballroom opened in 1924 with 15,000 dancers and caused the first traffic jam in Santa Monica history. In 1948 the La Monica Ballroom served as the filming location for Spade Cooley and his weekly musical show, the first live music shows televised.
The reopened pier also became popular once more with fishermen. One such fisherman was Olaf C. Olsen, a retired Norwegian sailor who operated a tiny fleet of fishing boats from the pier; always seen with a wooden pipe in his mouth, Olsen went on to inspire E.C. Segar, who would take fishing trips from Santa Monica with Olsen and eventually created the Popeye comic strip.
When the Great Depression hit the United States, attendance at the pier and the amusement park declined. Many rides and attractions shut their doors due to this lack of attendance. Since the construction of the pier, there had been a desire to build a breakwater and yacht harbor as a companion to the pier. Construction finally began on March 25, 1933, and was completed on August 5, 1934. It was financed with a $690,000 municipal bond, though despite adequate funding the breakwater was rather poorly planned and reshaped many nearby beaches due to the turbulence of ocean waters; it was eventually deemed a crumbling wreck. Yet, the building and dedication of the breakwater nevertheless inspired people to celebrate with yachting events and racing.
1933 SC $1 KM-683 Brass Santa Monica Breakwater
1933 SC $1 KM-687a Blue Anodized Aluminum Santa Monica Breakwater PCGS MS63
Medals were struck by the Los Angeles Rubber Stamp Company to commemorate this event. The medal features an aerial view of the breakwater and harbor with ships lined up and the inscription “SOUVENIR BREAKWATER 1933 SANTA MONICA, CALIF.” The reverse features a lovely design of a woman in recline on the beach with the background showing the ocean and pier with the amusement park alongside the inscription “SOUVENIR FROM CALIFORNIA’S PLAYGROUND OCEAN PARK.” Below “Ocean Park” there is “L.A.R.S. CO.” for Los Angeles Runner Stamp Co., and this is usually followed by a number which can be 1 to 14 and is sometimes left blank.
These medals are known to be struck in different metal compositions such as sterling silver, copper, bronze, brass, nickel, and aluminum. Bimetallic pieces, while rare, are known: brass with a bronze center, bronze with an aluminum center, brass with an aluminum center, and aluminum with a brass center. The aluminum pieces can come in anodized colors of blue, orange, and yellow, as well as the normal aluminum color.
Los Angeles Rubber Stamp Company would go out of business in the 1960s, and with it, mintage figures and many other pieces of numismatic knowledge were lost. Eventually, these pieces made it into Harold E. Hibler and Charles V. Kappen’s 1963 book So-Called Dollars would go on to be cataloged and described as such.
Before they were known as So-Called Dollars and before they were grouped into the back of auction catalogs as other pieces, these medals were a souvenir of a beach day. Someone in 1934 was likely peering in a booth in Ocean Park looking at trays of brass, copper, blue, orange, yellow, and aluminum pieces and went home with a new necklace or pocket piece to remember the rollercoaster they had been on, the fish they caught, the music they heard, the smell of the ocean air, the heat of the sun, and the feeling of the sand and ocean on the feet. That perfect day at the beach is forever embodied on a medal.
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