In the history of our nation, few battles have take place on our soil. The oceans which boarder our country also protect it from outsider who would attempt to over through our nation. However, battles are not always military. Currently, numerous cultural battles are taking place in the public arena. Battles over right and wrong, or over what society will allow, and what society considers as disruptive or harmful to our continuance are often more contentious than a military conflict fought on a foreign soil. The case of the Battle for Santa Monica Bay falls into this latter category. The willingness of the state of California to become a center of gambling, with the social maladies which tend to follow the gambling industry was the source of what is referred to as the Battle for Santa Monica Bay.
During the Gold Rush, and for the decades immediately following, California became known as the Land of New Beginnings.
The prospect of unfound gold in the ground created a rush to the West. It seemed as if the entire country was turned on its edge, with the east coast in the air and the West coast sitting at the bottom of the hill. Everything, and every person which was not firmly settled into their own community, and those seeking to start over again migrated to the west, in order to find gold, riches, or possibly prey off those who were not as fortunate.
These events began the culture war for the attitudes and hearts in southern California, which continued into the depression. In the beginning of the 1930's, the depression had taken much of the money out of the leisure economy, and prohibition had taken much of the fun out of dining out. As a result, during the Prohibition years, (1920-1933) Canadian liquor was smuggled into Venice from off-shore rumrunners by high-powered motorboats. They docked beneath the pier in the dead of night, and the mobster
Prohibition bootlegger Tony Cornero built a working agreement with Chicago mobster Johnny Roselli.. Cornero was a San Francisco cabbie before Prohibition. When the laws tried to eliminate alcohol consumption in the country, he turned to smuggling booze from Canada and Mexico up and down the California coast in tugboats. Roselli was an associate of Al Capone who had come West in 1924 to work a variety of rackets with Jack Dragna, who was organizing mob activity in sunny southern California
Tony Cornero rose to economic power to run the operation. Underground tunnels used by utility companies which ran along the alleys which came to and from the waterfront proved handy to the smugglers who delivered to illegal bars in the basements of the business district. Newspaper recorded the police engagements in shoot-outs with rumrunners along the beach near the oceanfront.
When prohibition ended, and Tony Cornero was released from a short internment for Prohibition violations, the lure of easy money in the entertainment industry still held his attention. Like most mobsters, any time the law could be circumvented in order to gain a financial advantage, Tony immediately saw the profit potential for gambling ships. Because the state has passes a number of laws successively restricting gambling on land during the 1930's, the state unknowingly created popularity of the offshore gambling boats. A fleet of these boats began in 1929, and one of the most famous was the Tango. This luxury gambling boat was anchored five miles directly west of the Venice Pier in Santa Monica Bay. Water taxis operated between the piers, and would deposit gamblers at these floating casinos that offered entertainment and dancing in addition to crap tables and roulette.
In 1938 Tony Cornero converted a 41-year-old boat into a gambling ship. The craft was given no motor, as its permanent home was anchored just off shore in the Santa Monica Bay. It had a superstructure which was especially designed as a luxury gambling craft.
His investment, rumored to be $600,000, was financed by Bugsy Siegal and George Raft. After finishing the retrofit, he towed the boat exactly 3.1 miles offshore which was just outside the 3-mile perimeter established by statute. He soon launched a radio and newspaper campaign that let the public know he was open for business. On land gambling houses had created much of the legal restrictions by their own activities. Numerous gaming institutions had been closed after the gaming tables were discovered to be rigged. In response to the current public perception of gambling, Cornera offered a challenge and a $100,000 reward to anyone who could show that any game on the Rex gambling boat was rigged. The operation was a success and it was reputed to net Tony $300,000 per month.
However, the SS Rex and the other gambling boats were a thorn in the side of anti-gambling forces who had achieved much success in eliminating gambling from the area. The Rex was soon joined by a small fleet of craft which were all anchored in the bay, which were all anchored in what was called Gamblers Row, just outside of a quasi-legal three mile distance from the shore where local authorities had no jurisdiction. Water Taxi services delivered gamblers to and from the ships. Once on board, couples could dine in the elegant restaurants and dance in the ballrooms. Most of the clientele came to gamble, and a full assortment of popular games could be found on board; slot machines, blackjack, poker, roulette, craps and thanks to Cornero's connections, betting on horse and dog races around the country.
The local authorities could not close the operations because the boats operated just beyond their jurisdiction. Although the police often harassed the water taxi service, their efforts to close the gambling operations were struck down in court.
The initial actions LA District Attorney Buron Fitts and Santa Monica Police Chief Dice met with only limited success. The men commandeered a number of waterside taxi services, and sailed out to the Rex with an arrest warrant for Cornero. After a brief stand off, Corners surrendered with the intent of fighting the matter in court.
The district attorney came up with an inventive argument. The Santa Monica Bay is boundaried by two points on the north and the south sides of the bay as it gives way to the ocean. Point Vicente and Point Dume serve as the ends of the bay. The district attorney argued that the Bay was actually an inland body of water. The 3-mile radius which had been defined by law was an imaginary line drawn from the two points, therefore the gambling boats operated illegally within the 3-mile radius. He called the bay a bight, or large coastal indentation, so therefore the gambling ships has to move. The initial court case sides with the district attorney, but the decision was overturned on appeal, and Cornero went back to work.
In the subsequent years, the police attempted many roused to gain access to the ship and find reasons to close them down. One such covert operation included 18 plain closed police officers who integrated with the normal clientele on a water taxi. However the ship staff was alerted to the plan, and the police were escorted off the ship as soon as the taxi landed.
Finally California Attorney General Earl Warren decided to take action. In 1938, rather than approaching the fleet under gambling laws, he armed himself with nuisance abatement warrants. His reasoning was that while the gambling was legally operated in the public waters, gambling brought with it other nuisance activities, such as alcoholism, crime, and prostitution. The gambling ships also diverted legitimate funding from other businesses and purposes on land. In an attempt to pin a 'guilty by association' verdict on the gamers.