A Story of Abuse and Resurrection: History of the Huntington Beach Pier

A Story of Abuse and Resurrection: History of the Huntington Beach Pier

Stretched out like a domineering force at the end of downtown Huntington Beach’s Main Street where the road continues past Pacific Coast Highway onto the beach, Huntington Beach Pier has become something of a municipal legend in Southern California, reaching some 1,850 feet in length and holding the accolade of being one of the longest public piers on the West Coast. The structure – which has landed itself in the California Register of Historical Resources – proudly rises 100 feet above sea level and is one of the primary landmarks of Huntington Beach, also known as “Surf City USA;” as such, the pier is the center of the city’s prominent beach culture. A popular meeting spot for surfers, the ocean waves here are enhanced by a natural effect caused by the edge-diffraction of open ocean swells around Catalina Island…the result? Consistent surfing all year round.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the current sensationalism it enjoys, Huntington Beach Pier’s history is replete with stories of abuse and resurrection, beginning at a time when Huntington Beach wasn’t even an official town. After Huntington Beach Company decided to build a pier in 1903 on land it owned, the structure was damaged for the first time ever in 1912 by a severe storm that caused a large portion of it to plunge into the Pacific. Fortunately, the city council at the time was already considering rebuilding the pier, and a $70,000 bond was approved to construct a new one made of concrete that would be 1,350 feet long. By 1914, the Huntington Beach Pier set a record as the longest and highest concrete “pleasure pier” in the United States, and by 1930, the city extended the pier by 500 feet, adding what would become a famous café at the end. However, this last section was not securely built, and was separated from the original pier by the 1933 Long Beach earthquake; though the city paved over the gap, a rare hurricane in California destroyed the End Café and extended section in 1939.

Resurrection of the pier and End Café was completed a year later.

Fast-forward to a little over 26 years ago, when a ridiculously overachieving short-period swell in the waters of the mighty Pacific gave the Huntington Beach area a flying karate chop and knocked the outermost 250-degrees of the pier into the drink. As one eyewitness of the time described it, “There was a shuddering…then a boom – then the whole thing collapsed, as giant chunks of debris slowly rolled around in the shore break. Another eye witness said the famous End Café actually made a more “stately” exit, floating for a while atop the ocean “like a houseboat;” Pacific Coast Highway was closed later that day between Newport and Huntington, as water surged all the way across that flat, massive expanse of beach and fizzled across the blacktop.

For a structure situated in relatively benign waters off Southern California, the Huntington Beach Pier boasts a long history of wave-beaten destruction and despair – even during pivotal times in America’s history, such as World War II. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Huntington Beach – along with many other coastal cities – was thrown into the war effort when the U.S. Navy took over the pier for military use; actions such as installing a submarine lookout post at the end along with a heavy-caliber machine gun were common.

The more contemporary history period of the pier began with a storm that rocked the end of the structure in 1983, again destroying the End Café, and one in 1988 following yet another reconstruction. That year, a company named Fluor/Daniel Consultants of Irvine conducted a study on the structural stability of the pier and, as a result, the structure was declared unsafe and was closed in July. In an effort to raise funds to rebuild the pier, a group of citizens formed an organization dubbed P.I.E.R. (Persons Interested in Expediting Reconstruction); the team was able to raise over $100,000 by selling T-shirts and

other merchandise with the P.I.E.R. logo. Another $92,000 was donated by the people of Anjo, Japan, considered one of Huntington Beach’s “sister cities,” and with this money construction of a new pier began in October 1990. The new pier was completed and opened on July 18, 1992 at 1,856 feet in length, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony performed to dedicate it, and by the end of the grand opening day, over 500,000 people had come to visit the new Huntington Beach Pier.

In looking to the future and taking into consideration the structure’s rough history, the city of Huntington Beach has established careful management and observation to keep the pier enduring into upcoming years. This cultural phenomenon of Southern Cali was even added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) on August 24, 1989, deeming the structure worthy of preservation by the federal government; this allows the city of Huntington Beach to qualify for tax incentives derived from the total value of expenses incurred while preserving the pier.

Today’s Huntington Beach Pier is frequented by sport fishermen as well as surfing spectators, and what was once the End Café has been replaced by Ruby’s Diner, still located at the very end of the structure. Hosted by Vanns and formerly sponsored by such companies as Hurley, Nike and Converse, the famous annual U.S. Open of Surfing is held on the south side of the pier every summer, representing the largest surfing competition in the world, in addition to many other events throughout the year (though mostly in summer). In addition to the U.S. Open, other surfing competitions such as the PSA, NASSA and CSA are held at the pier, as are tournaments for other sports such as volleyball, wrestling, BMX, kite-flying, paintballing and fishing.

If ever there was an oceanfront pier that was worthy of historic inclusion and recognition, it’s the iconic example in Huntington Beach that continues to wow with intriguing stories of yesteryear, triumphant tales of rebirth and a vision of a promising future that generations can be proud of.

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Malakai Sparks