During the 1920s, Southern California’s coast was the spot to be. But, not the beach; something a bit farther out, about three miles or so.

It was gambling boats, floating casinos with cards, craps and roulette.

In an interview for "LA Times Today," staff writer Daniel Miller joined host Lisa McRee to talk about the forgotten history of Santa Monica’s gambling ships and the epic battle that ended it all. 

What You Need To Know

  • The S.S. Rex was the biggest and most opulent gambling boat anchored off Santa Monica in 1939

  • The man at the helm was a brash bootlegger-turned-gaming kingpin named Tony Cornero

  • Cornero and others like him saw a way around California laws prohibiting gambling by operating floating casinos in waters they believed to be beyond the state’s jurisdiction

  • In 1939, California Attny. Gen. Earl Warren oversaw a raid on the gambling boats

One of Miller’s goals when working on this story was to find people who experienced this era in the 1930s. His research led him to a woman named Florence Kinney, whose husband used to visit gambling boats.

“Florence Kinney was a remarkable woman. When I interviewed her, she was 107 years old. Even though she had not been on the boats, she remembered them and had great stories about being able to see them from the shore. And of course, she remembered how her husband went on the boats and how his friends lost a bunch of money playing cards,” said Miller.

Many people wanted to go on these gambling boats during the Great Depression, and they were not far from shore.

“To get to the gambling boats, you would go to Santa Monica Pier, and you would get on a water taxi, and the taxi would take you about three miles out to sea. And, there, you would find gambling boats; among them, the S.S. Rex. They had these names that evoked glamour. Another one was called the Lux. For people during the Depression, this was a chance to have a night on the town; maybe a little bit of danger, some risk and maybe a chance to win some money. It was a bit of an escape, and they became wildly popular,” said Miller.

Miller says the gambling boats were anchored supposedly outside California waters, where state laws prohibiting gambling would not apply.

“Of course, the authorities back on land did not really agree with that idea. And, almost from the beginning, there was a ton of tension between law enforcement and the gambling boat operators,” Miller said.

One of the most notorious gambling boat operators was a man named Tony Cornero.

“He was an ex-bootlegger who had come to Santa Monica with this vision of basically emptying Angelenos’ pockets on the water. Cornero was a great self-promoter; when he opened his most famous boat, the S.S. Rex, he promoted it with skywriting, and he was really ahead of his time. The press loved him, but the authorities certainly did not,” added Miller. 

When authorities tried to shut Cornero down, he and his crew resisted and fought back for more than a week.

“In 1939, California Attorney General Earl Warren declares these gambling boats a public nuisance and oversees a raid on the gambling boats in August of that year. Some of the other operators surrendered but not Tony. He barricades his ship up, and whenever any of the government agents tried to get close, Tony’s men let lose these high-power water cannons on them and basically rebuffed them. This incident became known as the Battle of Santa Monica Bay; it captivated the Southland and lasted for 10 days. No shots were fired, but Tony knew he would not escape this; he was basically surrounded. So, after 10 days, he says he thinks he needs a haircut, and the only thing he does not have in the S.S. Rex is a barber. Tony then surrenders, and that is the end of the Battle of Santa Monica Bay, and Tony’s days as a gambling boat operator were numbered,” said Miller.

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