How piers became part of Southern California beach culture

By Sandra Barrera, Los Angeles Daily News


Paradise Cove in Malibu, Saturday, May 2, 2015. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker/Los Angeles Daily News)

For more than a century, piers have punctuated the Southern California coast.

Many of these boardwalks to the sea began as places of toil — where ships were loaded and unloaded, and legions of California dreams came ashore. Others were anchored to the booming Coney Island-style resorts.

Today, piers are an integral part of beach town culture.

They’re a focal point for surfers, fishermen and sightseers in search of a quintessential Southern California experience. Scores of tiny exclamation points on the map that say something unique is here, come take a look.

“Even walking out to the end of a pier can be a dramatic thing,” says photographer Ed Grant, whose search for a book about these man-made structures led to “Piers of the California Coast,” which features essays from a poet, former Surfer magazine editor-in-chief, lifeguards and a big wave surfer about their connection to each pier.

Southern California has no shortage. From the Redondo Beach Pier’s quaint seaside village vibe to the “Beach Blanket Bingo” backdrop of Malibu Pier, cottage-lined Crystal Pier to the Roundhouse Aquarium that draws families and school kids to Manhattan Beach Pier, Southern California’s piers each have their own distinct history.

But there’s one thing they have in common, says Chris Epting, an Orange County author. “A pier, like it is today, was a place for people to gather and get a different perspective.”


The earliest piers were built in the 1870s to meet the needs of Southern California’s early development.

Getting to Santa Barbara, for example, was difficult in the era before major roads and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

As early as the 1850s, transportation service by steamships was common on this stretch of shoreline. The ships anchored off the coast of Santa Barbara and sent rowboats to carry passengers and cargo ashore. Lumber from the Pacific Northwest was dropped into the ocean to float in with the tide.

Tired of collecting logs up and down the beach, John P. Stearns — who moved to Santa Barbara in 1868 and set up a lumberyard — borrowed $41,000 from the wealthy cattle rancher Col. William Welles Hollister to build Stearns Wharf in September 1872.

It wasn’t the first of its kind on this stretch of California. At least a handful of wharves already existed between Ventura and Santa Barbara, but they weren’t long enough to pick up the ships.

Stearns Wharf was.

Neal Graffy, an author and local historian whose latest book is “Santa Barbara Then and Now,” remembers coming across an old photo of lumber piled onto one side of the wharf and people disembarking from a ship on the other.

“This is the same walk that people in 1872 took when they got their first look at Santa Barbara,” Graffy says, alluding to iconic views of the waterfront, Santa Ynez Mountains and Santa Barbara Channel, with the Channel Islands in the distance.


Pleasure piers were a popular feature of beach resorts, which were all the rage in the early 20th century.

Santa Monica’s landmark pier, built to carry sewage waste to the ocean, opened with great fanfare in 1909. It featured a visit by US Navy Cruiser USS Albany, a series of beach competitions judged by legendary surfer George Freeth and tableau vivants. The grand opening drew thousands of Southern Californians who got to be among the first to take a leisurely stroll along the narrow 1,600-foot concrete pier.

Seeing the interest it generated, famed carousel manufacturer Charles Looff decided to open a short amusement pier next door.

In 1916, his Looff Hippodrome opened with a menagerie animal carousel — followed by a roller coaster, bowling alley, fun house and live entertainment platform near a picnic pavilion — as part of the new Looff Pleasure Pier.

The two Santa Monica piers were eventually merged into one big pleasure pier complete with a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, carousel, soda fountain and trapeze school of today.

“The amusement aspect of the contemporary Santa Monica Pier is a very small amusement area compared to what Pacific Ocean Park was,” says Domenic Priore, co-author of “Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space Age Nautical Pleasure Pier” with amusement park designer Christopher Merritt.

Pacific Ocean Park – P.O.P., for short – opened in 1958 in nearby Venice Beach as a full-scale amusement park on the sea popular with the rock and roll crowd. The 28-acre park combined old-fashioned amusements with Googie modern-style rides equal to those found at Disneyland.

“Disneyland was the magic kingdom for children of all ages, but past a certain age, P.O.P. is where you wanted to be,” Priore says.

In fact, its visionary Charles “Doc” Strub in a joint venture with CBS built POP to compete with Walt Disney’s theme park by hiring top Hollywood designers to set the stage and build advanced rides.

There was the Ocean Skyway, Raymond Loewy-style bubbles floating over the ocean by ski lift. Flight to Mars tried to outdo Disneyland’s Rocket to the Moon attraction by simulating a trip to the red planet where guests could even walk around the surface. The Mystery Island Banana Train Ride took passengers by train through a jungle-inspired setting.

At one point, the tracks crossed a bridge over a gap in the pier.

The park was surprisingly safe, but the seaside location took its toll when it came to keeping the animatronics free of corrosion. It made it hard to keep the place afloat.

P.O.P. closed in 1967. It was torn down in 1975 after damage from rot and fire sent chunks of the park falling into the water.


Fire, ocean storms, earthquakes and natural wear and tear are big threats to piers.

“Almost every pier has had major reconstruction on it,” says Grant, who photographed Gaviota Pier at Gaviota State Park about a month before a major storm came through in March 2014 and tore out the last 100 feet of decking.

The state park estimates repairing the popular fishing and boating pier built in 1957 could cost $20 million. The repairs are on indefinite hold.

Huntington Beach Pier defines the town nicknamed “Surf City, USA” today. In 1904, railroad and real estate tycoon Henry Huntington built the pier just as the community then called Pacific City officially incorporated with his name.

“The idea was to mirror Atlantic City in terms of where people would vacation and have fun,” says Epting, a journalist and author who has written extensively about the history of Huntington Beach and Orange County.

Huntington Pier has been damaged, rebuilt and redeveloped several times since its debut. It was taken over by the U.S. Navy in World War II and used as a submarine lookout, like other commercial piers up and down the coast that became military installations.

The last big storm to shut down the pier came in 1988.

After four years of construction, a newly fortified pier reopened with modern engineering that claims it will withstand 31-foot waves and a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

Today, more than ever, crowds flow onto the pier from Main Street to grab a bite, watch surfers or fish.

The Huntington Pier has long been a world-class surf spot. Surfing legend George Freeth and Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku enjoyed its waves in the early 20th century. Surfers still “shoot the pier” – riding their boards through the pier’s support pilings. It’s also known as the home of the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing, from July 25-Aug. 2.

There are bait and snack shops, kite rentals and a high-tech lifeguard tower that monitors beachgoers.

“I think it’s the perspective thing that has always made piers a lot of fun and still popular. It’s a beautiful perch,” Epting says. “Nothing stands between you and the ocean.”

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