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Homage to the 60 Golden Years of Marine Stadium's Waterway : Rowing: Officials are deciding whether to designate the man-made facility a city historic site. It was the site of the 1932 Olympics and three Olympic Trials.

August 06, 1992|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Carved from a saltwater bog during the heart of the Great Depression, Marine Stadium in the southeast portion of the city conjures up memories of simpler times.

The site for the rowing competition of the 1932 Olympics, it was the channel where out-of-work fans hung from oil derricks to watch eight Americans power their shell over the finish line to win a gold medal.

Competitors from that 10th Olympiad, civic and county representatives and rowing enthusiasts will gather on the stadium's shores tonight at 6:30 to pay tribute to the 60-year legacy of the inland waterway. Mayor Ernie Kell is expected to present a proclamation honoring Marine Stadium as the first man-made rowing facility created for Olympic competition, and the city's Municipal Band is scheduled to play.

More than 700 million cubic yards of mud and sand were dredged from Upper Alamitos Bay to create the channel. It is more than a mile long, 100 yards wide and at least five feet deep at low tide and has played host to three U.S. Olympic rowing trials and numerous aquatic championships, as well as recreational boating, swimming and rowing.

The Marine Stadium celebration was organized by rowing enthusiast Larry Goodhue, who has pushed for five years to persuade officials to designate Marine Stadium as a city historic site. The Cultural Heritage Commission has recommended that it receive the designation, and the Planning Commission takes up the issue today8/6. The proposal also would require City Council approval.

"This helps strengthen the fabric of the community when we have sites like this," Goodhue said. "People will then understand the importance of the venue in terms of history."

Goodhue drew praise from Neighborhood and Historic Preservation Officer Ruthann Lehrer, who believes Marine Stadium is one of the city's top assets.

"What he has done is a nice thing for Long Beach," she said. "It brings rich history to the public's attention."

Goodhue has functioned as the stadium's unofficial coxswain. When the city balked earlier this year at refurbishing six 90-foot flagpoles at Marine Stadium, Goodhue raised $6,000 from rowing buddies and neighbors to get the job done. He also arranged for the donation of transportation and lodging for three of the eight gold medalists from the 1932 shell team to attend tonight's ceremony.

Eventually, Goodhue wants Marine Stadium to be become a national landmark, but tonight, he said, the festivities will focus on all that the stadium has done for the city's image.

Over the years, Marine Stadium has benefited from many civic-minded residents such as Goodhue. In 1922, Eastside residents passed a bond measure to pay for the purchase and dredging of upper Alamitos Bay and the construction of what is now Recreation Park and two golf courses.

A saltwater swimming lagoon, at Colorado Street and Park Avenue, was also built. The city had hoped that Long Beach would land not only rowing, but Olympic swimming and diving as well. However, the Colorado Lagoon was passed over by Olympic officials, who wanted a fresh-water venue.

The city kicked in $77,000 for the development of Marine Stadium, primarily for a boathouse near Nieto Avenue and what is now Appian Way.

As the wetlands around Marine Stadium were drained, a city of oil derricks popped up along the barren skyline. When Marine Stadium was officially opened on July 23, 1932, its north shore was lined with at least five rows of wooden derricks.

"Those oil derricks went way up high," said Winslow Hall, one of the three gold medalists who will be on hand tonight. "Everybody was on them watching the races. You couldn't see anything past them because people were hanging on them everywhere."

Tall, dark and grimy, the derricks served a critical function in the city's Olympic lore. In a period of tough economic times, residents who otherwise would not have been able to afford to see such a spectacle flocked to take advantage of the free seats. The only toll: a five-cent fare on the Pacific Electric Railway that dropped riders off at the entrance to Marine Stadium.

The stadium was the first rowing venue ever built where a race could be seen from start to finish, prompting Zack Farmer, manager of the 1932 Olympic Games, to call Long Beach, "the rowing capital of the United States."

Those who scraped up $9 to get inside the fences stood 10-people deep at the water's edge. Some rolled up their pant legs and dipped their ankles into the cool salt water to escape the throngs on the rocky shoreline.

Official estimates put the five-day Olympic rowing crowd at about 120,000, more than twice the population of Long Beach in 1932. But because many spectators crowded outside the fences, unofficial totals put the figure at twice that.

A highlight of the competition was the last race--the 2,000-meter eight-man event in which Hall's team from UC Berkeley came from behind to win the gold medal, edging an Italian team by three inches.

After the Olympics, Marine Stadium held several of the nation's top annual rowing races. But, as technology grew, speedboat racing became more popular. By the late 1960s, Marine Stadium had nearly a race a week--mostly some form of power-boating--from March through December.

In 1968, the facility received a $2-million face lift. The northwestern end was filled in and the starting line for rowing was shifted beneath the Davies 2nd Street Bridge in front of the Long Beach Yacht Club.

By 1982, most of the power-boat racing had vanished because neighbors objected to the noise. In the next several years, the city plans to add several parks, a small boat slip and limited commercial activity on the banks of Los Cerritos Channel, which dumps into Marine Stadium.

But Goodhue is content that the developments, adjacent to some of the newest and priciest homes in the city, won't affect the ambience of the Marine Stadium course, where water-skiers, motor boats and jet skis ply the murky waters.

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