Abbot Kinney, the creator of Venice, California, led a fascinating life, one filled with adventure, scholarly pursuits, public service, and business enterprises. Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on November 16, 1850, from the time he was a teenager Kinney traveled the world extensively in
After the family moved to Washington D.C. where his father worked as a government lawyer and an uncle served as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Abbot, just 16 years old, was sent to Europe to finish his education. Over the next three years he studied in France, Germany, and Switzerland. It was while he was in Switzerland in 1869 that he went on a walking tour of Italy and first witnessed the grandeur of Venice. This experience made a lasting impression on him.
Among his many talents, young Kinney had a knack for picking up foreign languages. By the time he was an adult he could speak six languages fluently: English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Arabic. The last of these he acquired while acting as a purchasing agent for the Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company, a highly successful company started in 1874 by his older brother Francis, with headquarters in Manhattan, New York. For several years in the later 1870’s Abbot was stationed in Alexandria, Egypt and then in Macedonia, purchasing Turkish tobacco and shipping it to the Kinney Brothers factory in New York, where it was mixed with domestic tobacco and rolled into cigarettes. When the Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company was sold to the much larger American Tobacco Company in 1890 both brothers became very wealthy.
A life-long asthmatic, Kinney struggled with the extreme temperatures and humidity on the East Coast and for many years sought a climate that would be conducive to his respiratory well-being. After one lengthy trip to Australia and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii now), he arrived in San Francisco in the winter of 1880, intending to take the railroad back east to visit family and spend time in Florida. But nature had other ideas. Huge snow drifts in the Sierra Nevada Mountains closed all east-west railroad traffic so, stuck on the West Coast, Kinney began exploring the area. One day while in San Jose he met a woman who informed him that there was a facility in Southern California which offered effective treatment for people with respiratory ailments, the Sierra Madre Hotel, located just outside Pasadena. With time on his hands, Kinney purchased a round-trip railroad ticket to Los Angeles thinking he would check out this facility and then return to San Francisco. Lo and behold, he was so smitten with the climate in this locale and the beneficial effect it had on his breathing that he made up his mind to settle here. Purchasing a 550- acre piece of property from an old beekeeper, he built a large home and planted thousand of citrus trees. He called the farm “Kinneloa,” or “Kinney Hill” in Hawaiian. Needless to say, Kinney never used the “return” portion of his railroad ticket.
During the period when Kinneloa was under construction Kinney would sometimes stay at the Kimball Mansion, a boardinghouse located in the nascent downtown area of Los Angeles. Once, while staying there he met another resident of the boarding house– a woman, 20 years his senior, who earned a living as a travel writer. She had a passionate interest in the injustices suffered by the “Mission Indians” at the hands of white settlers and the U.S. Government. Her name was Helen Hunt Jackson. Sensing a sympathetic soul in Kinney, and impressed with his fluency in Spanish and knowledge of land laws, she invited him to travel with her on a 6 week fact-finding junket to several Indian villages lying between Los Angeles and San Diego. With the help of Jackson’s friend, Edward Teller, who was head of the U.S. Department of the Interior at that time, they were hired by the U.S. Government to visit these villages, determine the conditions of the indigenous population living there, and recommend any lands they might be re-located to if they had to move. Their report, filed in1883, eventually led to Congressional passage of the Mission Indian Act in 1891. Equally, if not more importantly, many of the events and scenes they witnessed on their travels made their way into Jackson’s best selling novel, Ramona. At once a story of cross-cultural romance a la Romeo and Juliet, a historical treatise on the Spanish and Mexican occupation of Alta California, and an indictment of those who perpetuated gross injustices upon the Native American population, Ramona led to awareness of and protections for the Mission Indians. The book ultimately influenced tens of thousand of people to migrate to southern California, and motivated people to preserve and restore the Spanish Missions that dated back to 1769.
While Jackson died tragically less than two years after the publication of her novel, she hoped Abbot Kinney would become a full-time Indian agent and look after the best interests of her beloved Mission Indians. Kinney, however, had other ideas. In 1884 he accepted an appointment to a three year term as the very first Chairman of California’s Board of Forestry. A deep thinker on the subject of Forest and Water management, in his capacity as Chairman Kinney railed against private interests at the expense of the public good, disparaged inefficient government practices, and appealed for a more scientific management of public resources. Among his achievements during this period was the establishment of the first experimental forestry station in the United States, located in Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. In addition, along with his friend John Muir, Kinney helped establish the San Gabriel Reserve as a protected area. Today this area is known as the Angeles National Forest.
Finally, Kinney would later publish two books summarizing his forestry work, Eucalyptus (1895) and Forest and Water (1900).
During his tenure with the Board of Forestry Kinney often traveled to Sacramento to present reports to the state legislature. It was on one of these trips that he met his future wife, Margaret, the daughter of a California Supreme Court Judge. Maggie, as she was known, came to live with Abbot at Kinneloa. However, summertime temperatures were so oppressive they decided to build a home in Santa Monica and live there during the summer months. Located at Ocean Avenue and Margueritte St, “Mayflower Cottage,” as it was affectionately called, became Kinney’s first base of operations on the Westside.
In the years that followed Abbot Kinney broadened his investments in real estate. He purchased the land we now know as “Pacific Palisades” but sold it to Henry Huntington, the railroad magnate, during a downturn in the economy. He also owned buildings in downtown Los Angeles on Spring Street and the Abbotsford Inn on the corner of 8th and Hope streets. Moreover he purchased property in the West Adams district, which was then considered the “country”, developing a subdivision called “Kinney Heights”, an area where many Craftsman style homes still stand today. Later, along with partner Francis Ryan, he would purchase a swath of beach property extending from what is today Ocean Park into what was then called the Ballona salt marshes, today we call this “Venice”.
In the neighborhood of Ocean Park (now incorporated into Santa Monica), Kinney and Ryan built a pier and a country club, established tennis and polo tournaments , and sold building lots to eager vacationers and year-round residents alike. Trolley service was provided by the Pacific Red Cars to downtown Los Angeles and the future looked bright. But then Francis Ryan, who was only 47, had a fatal heart attack and things changed. His widow married H. Dudley, who soon thereafter sold his share of the business to a syndicate who Abbot Kinney could not see eye to eye with. They agreed to have a coin toss, whose winner would get to choose between retaining the developed Ocean Park area or taking on the thoroughly undeveloped swamp area to the south. Kinney won the toss and all who were present felt sure he would choose the developed area. But Kinney surprised them, choosing instead the marshy area favored by duck hunters. And thus, a long ago dream of building a “Venice-of-America” began to take shape.