By Kristi Hawthorn
Oceanside’s love affair with its pier began 125 years ago when the first piling was driven into the sand at the end of Couts Street. You won’t find Couts Street on any map, but it’s there--the name was changed back in 1927 to Wisconsin Street.
The remnants of that first pier are still there, occasionally making a rare appearance during minus tides and low sand levels. In 2012 several pilings were exposed for a brief few days, which had not been seen for over 20 years.
The Oceanside pier is a beloved landmark and although the relentless waves and violent storms have claimed our piers over the years, our city continues to repair or rebuild. The first pier was actually called a wharf, as investors hoped that Oceanside would be a commercial structure which would bring much needed lumber and other supplies. The wharf fund was raised by subscription with $28,000 being pledged, amounts ranging from $10 to $5,000. The building contract was given to the Great American Bridge Company of San Francisco and its superintendent was J.P. Sheldon. The needed lumber was actually unloaded from the ships Starbuck and Olive P. Southard and rafted to shore. In a few short months the new wharf was out 500 feet and fishing from it became the favorite pastime.
In August of 1888 the local newspaper reported the wharf’s progress week by week: 1,000 feet, then 1,100 feet and then 1,340 feet long -- close to its intended length of 1500 feet. However, it appears that that the wharf was never built to completion and although it could be used for fishing and recreation it was never able to be used for commercial shipping purposes. Unused lumber blocked Pacific Street and calls to finish building were numerous. Records are missing and it is unclear as to if Oceanside's wharf was ever completed but winter storms had reduced the wharf to 940 feet in 1890. By January 1891 the final blow was dealt when the furious storms finished what was left and swept away all but 300 feet of the wharf.
After the demise of Oceanside's first wharf in 1891 the beaches were covered with its debris. The cleanup was a slow process and mostly undertaken by the proprietor of the South Pacific Hotel and owner of the bath house, Melchior Pieper. He began collecting the pilings and planks that had drifted ashore. Pieper was said to have even stamped his initials on the pilings. He involved himself in community activities and continued drumming up support for his wharf. It did not take much to understand why a wharf was so important to Pieper. All three of his businesses were situated on or near Third Street (now Pier View Way). The St. Cloud Hotel was on the corner of Third and Cleveland, the South Pacific near the corner of Third and Pacific and the bathhouse was just below. It would indeed be very beneficial to have a wharf at the end of Third Street attracting more business and more tourists, giving Pieper a very valuable monopoly. Pieper traveled to San Francisco in December of 1893 to meet with Mr. Anson P. Hotaling, owner of the South Pacific Hotel, (and considerable property throughout the city) to persuade him to support the building a pier that would be beneficial for the hotel. Pieper’s trip was successful, as Hotaling agreed to support the construction of a wharf.
In April of 1894 a committee was formed and plans for the new wharf began. While there was some resistance against the Third Street location, (a site between Second and Third was favored), but with Hotaling donating $350 and Pieper donating $100 and offering to board the workmen free, the disagreement was set aside. Fund raising began immediately with the Oceanside Silver Cornet Band holding a benefit ball at the Oceanside Opera House. Tickets were just a dollar but the Benefit, hailed as a success, raised $50 for the wharf fund.
By June over $1,000 was pledged and two weeks of labor donated. With enthusiasm running high, J.A. Tulip, a member of the wharf committee, persuaded a resident in joining him in digging the first hole for one of the pilings to be used in the wharf's approach. Within days several bents and stringers were put in place and 200 feet of the approach were ready for flooring. In June the wharf committee ordered 440 feet of iron pipe, which arrived from St. Louis in August. Oceanside's second pier was known as the "iron" wharf. With the entire city of Oceanside behind it, the little iron wharf was completed in September of 1894 at the modest length of little more than 600 feet.
Oceanside’s second wharf was not long enough to accommodate commercial vessels and although it captured the hearts of residents and visitors alike, it was still hoped that a more substantial structure could be built. The city trustees met in July of 1900 to pass Ordinance #120, for the issuance of a $5,000 bond to repair and extend Oceanside's wharf. In September voters passed the bond issue by a vote of 56 to 9. But it wasn’t until 1903 that Oceanside would have a new pier, its third. G.M. Apkins of Long Beach was awarded the contract for building the third pier in August of 1903. This pier was to be made of steel pilings, 140 tons of second-hand steel purchased from the Southern California Railway Company. Oceanside’s steel pier was advertised as a "pleasure pier".
Inevitably, the storms took their toll against the steel pier and in 1912 three "bents" or supports were swept away, leaving the stumps of railway steel exposed. By 1915 storms had damaged the pier extensively. The 1,400 foot pier was now down to a little more than 800 feet. Many wrote the local paper, the Blade, to voice their complaints and requested the pier to be repaired, "... if the pier goes, with it goes all hope of the town having summer visitors." Repairs were made in 1915 and the pier was braced and strengthened.
In 1916 a flood devastated San Diego County, wiping out roads, railroads and bridges and killing several people countywide. The Oceanside pier played an important role in getting much needed food and supplies to Oceanside and the surrounding area. Coal for the Santa Fe railroad was shipped in; The Swift Packing Co. sent several tons of meats for Oceanside and neighboring towns and the Pacific Coast Biscuit Co. landed about two tons of miscellaneous groceries and meats. Because this activity necessitated heavy equipment and cranes, the damage they did forced the closing of the pier for a short time after the emergency. In conjunction with the recent storm damage, the steel pier had taken more than it could withstand. However, it would take over a decade to build a newer, better pier.
In 1925 several designs for a new pier were proposed and the building of a concrete pier was considered. Sidney Smith of Los Angeles was the sole bidder in December of 1926, in the amount of $93,900. The bid was accepted and work began the same month. Compromises were made as to the construction of the pier by building a concrete approach 300 feet long with the remaining 1,300 feet made from wood. Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1927 Oceanside’s fourth pier was dedicated. The celebration brought thousands of people from all over Southern California. The new pier was the focal point of the festivities and once again was Oceanside’s pride and joy. Again, the storms and waves took their toll and by the 1940s it was clearly evident that the fourth pier would have to be replaced. The pier that survived the roaring '20s, the Depression and World War II was weakened to a point where its safety was questioned.
E.C. Wickerd, described as an "extensive property owner and pier enthusiast", circulated petitions in favor of saving the pier. He stated, "The pier has been one of Oceanside's biggest advertising and tourist assets, and should be protected." The pier was closed after being deemed unsafe by deep-sea divers and engineers. Citizens urged the pier be re-opened during the day for fishing and then closed at night. A petition circulated asking that the pier be repaired, strengthened and opened to the public. Oceanside wanted a pier and if the old one could not be repaired then a new pier would be built. A proposal was made for a Bond Election to reconstruct the Oceanside pier. Three hundred signatures were needed to get on the April ballot. The needed signatures were collected and the Bond Election passed. Work started almost at once and the $200,000 bond would build a pier 1,900 feet long--the longest on the West Coast. The pier was dedicated in traditional Oceanside style in June of 1947 with a parade of bathing beauties at the annual Beach Opening. Forty-eight girls, the most in the history of the contest, participated. Bands and professional entertainment, along with dedication of the pier by Mayor Arthur Britsch, civic leaders and contractors marked the culmination of many months of work and planning by the city.
Perhaps because more people can remember the fifth pier and our pride in it, it is often talked about wistfully and fondly. The white-railed pier could take fisherman and pedestrians out farther than any of its predecessors. A 28-passenger tram operated by the city could take guests out to the end of the pier and have room enough to turn around. McCullah Sport Fishing took enthusiasts out to fishing barges anchored over the kelp beds a mile out. For years this pier continued as Oceanside's source of pride and stood longer than any other pier the city had built. But piers do not last forever and after nearly 30 years, it was rapidly showing its age.
In 1975 the pier was faced with closures after severe storm damage and in October, Public Works Director, Alton L. Ruden said that the "pier could collapse at any time, and it would cost more than $1.4 million to replace it. Some morning we're going to wake up and there won't be a pier. It can go in an hour. It's like a string of dominoes. But it's only during storms that it is dangerous and that's why it's closed, when necessary." Nearly a dozen of the 500 pilings holding up the pier were gone and the joints were loose and worn out. The pier would sway in heavy seas. The city's redevelopment consultants recommended that a new, shorter pier be constructed at the foot of Mission Avenue along with the proposal of "spacious pedestrian mall and be planned around a new Amtrack station." The pier was placed as "No. 1 priority in the redevelopment plans for downtown" but it would be over a decade before a sixth pier was built.
In April of 1976 a 600-square-foot section of the southwest corner behind the Pier Cafe collapsed during a storm. Later that year a fire broke out in the Pier Fish Market, located halfway out on the pier and in December the Pier Cafe was completely destroyed by fire. Problems continued to plague the pier and by 1978 a storm ripped off an additional 200 feet, leaving the historic landmark a mere 1,000 feet. In the battle of man and waves, the sea had won. The pier was closed while the city decided how to fund the building of a new pier and how it would be built. In 1978 steps had been taken and the planning began. Funding of the pier came from the Wildlife Conservation Board, State Emergency Assistance, Community development, the State Coastal Conservancy and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The new pier proposed would be 1,500 feet long and would include a restaurant, tackle shop, lifeguard tower and restrooms. The total cost, including the demolition of the 1947 pier was estimated at $3 million dollars.
In August of 1985 Good & Roberts, Inc. of Carlsbad was awarded the contract to restore the concrete portion from the 1927 pier. In early 1986 the construction contract was awarded to Crowely International of San Francisco. The new pier was built 3 feet higher at the end than the previous piers, helping to extend the life of the pier because the waves do their greatest damage there. The life expectancy of the present pier is about 50 years. Not only was the present pier constructed with the most advanced technology, but innovative ideas such as placing the top decking in diagonal planks added to the overall reinforcement but added to the beauty of the pier as well. The buildings placed on the pier were installed with sprinklers to protect them from fires and can also accommodate a fire truck. Borrowing from the past, the lampposts are designed after the original ones that stood on the 1927 pier. Many people now assume the names carved into the wooden railing on the pier were sold to help build the pier. However, the money raised by each name carved went to help fund Oceanside’s Centennial Celebration in 1988.
On September 27, 1987, the pier was dedicated and opened with the public invited to inspect Oceanside’s newest pier. Balloons were sent off and after the mayor and City Council made their opening remarks, residents could now take the long awaited stroll along the wooden planks. Thousands of people walk out on the pier each year. It is one of the most photographed landmarks in Oceanside and San Diego County. Oceanside's first pier is gone but it has been written deep into the history of Oceanside. We are proud of our beautiful pier and the history it represents. We are equally proud of the citizens who have persevered and have dared to dream. Oceanside has always loved its pier and it would not be the same without it.