The Ventura Pier: Where Commerce Met Romance

by Dr. Randal Beeman

photo by Connor Detko

“In the name of the people of Ventura…I dedicate this wharf to the uses of commerce and to the promotion of agricultural and material interests.” Local journalist and town booster James J Ayers of the Ventura Signal offered this declaration upon the opening of the Ventura Pier in 1872. After a few more words the youngest daughter of local citizen Sr. Juan Caramillo had the honor of breaking a bottle of champagne against the first piling (pole) to celebrate the city’s impending connection to the outside world.

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The newspaper also reported that ‘sparkling champagne was uncorked…flowingly” to commemorate the future success to the enterprise whose opening residents had been meagerly anticipating since the first piling made of treated Douglas Fir arrived on the schooner Free Trade earlier in the year. Venturans had been clamoring for a central wharf for years prior to the onset of construction in 1871. As the steam powered pile driver loudly clanged, hammers pounded and sawdust filled the air as adjacent warehouses took form and locals looked on with anticipation. Nestled against the mountains between two bridgeless rivers, in the wet months the only way to reach cities like Ventura and Santa Barbara was by sea before the establishment of a rail connection in 1887. (For example, in January of 1875 it rained 9.32 inches in Ventura, completely isolating the city for weeks from the rest of the state except by sea.)

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Prior to the construction of the pier, goods and people had to reach the city be debarking from a coastal steamer onto smaller boats that would traverse the breakers and offload on the beach. Lumber from the Northwest and Northern California that would frame the Victorian homes on the hills above Ventura’s shoreline would simply be floated in with the tide. With farmers and ranchers wanting a pier to ship their crops and livestock, and with a nascent petroleum industry in need of heavy equipment, the building of the pier was vital to nearly everyone in the community.

What began as an economic necessity soon realized an alternative purpose — the Ventura Pier morphed into a place for amusement and repose, a place for grandparents to teach their children the art of angling for fish and for young couples to romance and propose marriage. In addition to fishing for the abundant local species, the Ventura press noted that soon after opening the Ventura Pier was “growing in popularity” on balmy evenings as “our fair and brave seek the cool zephyrs that waft in from the ocean” while they partook in an ‘invigorating walk or a dulcet tête-à-tête high above the murmuring of the driving breakers.” Before long the piers of California were hosting generations of anglers and they served as an ideal viewpoint for judges to oversee the first surfing contests in the state.

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Nearly every beach city in California has maintained a wooden pier along its shoreline, (some were used to offload raw sewage away from the coast), and the costly and ongoing task of preservation and maintenance of the Ventura Pier is a testimony to Ventura’s long term romance with our entrepot to sea. At 1620 feet it is the 8th longest pier in the state. (It used to be the longest but was shortened over time as others were extended.)

It is made primarily of wood, though recent repairs of the structure since 1995 have added some metal pilings for durability and to elevate the height at the end of the pier. Visitors to the pier today will immediately recognize its utility, much like locals did back in the 1870s. For some it is a place to have a meal and interface with the ocean without going out on a boat or ship. Others use it a place to enjoy fishing and to watch or photograph marine life and birds. Walkers, runners, hikers, and bicyclists share the pier, and it provides an historical ambience for the many visitors at nearby hotels and motels.

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When it was built in 1872 the pier was an essential component to the growing town’s economic infrastructure. Ships plying the California coastal trade would arrive at the pier every ten days or so, offloading farm and oilfield equipment and picking up loads of hogs, cattle or produce. Not long after construction, the Ventura Pier was destroyed by heavy surf in a storm in 1877. It re-opened shortly afterward but the damaging of the structure by storms would become an ongoing problem requiring massive rebuilds.

Without much shelter from the southern winds, the Ventura Pier has little protection from high tides and storm driven waves, Weather would damage the pier again in 1926,1937, 1949, 1969, 1977. 1988, 1993, 1995, and again in 2015. (The 1926 storms also destroyed the city’s other pier located at Seaward Avenue.) In 1889 the world’s first oil tanker caught fire and damaged the Pier and in 1917 the S.S Coos Bay cut the Pier in half when a storm blew the vessel into the structure.

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At one point the Ventura Pier had the distinction of being the longest on the West Coast at 1958 feet. Various rebuildings have shortened the pier, and other cities have built extensions so that today the Santa Cruz Pier is the longest at 2745 feet.

Once a private concern, ownership of the Ventura Pier transferred to the State of California in 1949. After the 1986 storms damaged several of the pilings, community leaders got together and decided that the Ventura Pier was an essential part of Ventura’s identity. Initial repair costs were woefully understated (the number $150,000 was mentioned) but the eventual cost of repairs would tally over 3.5 millions dollars. Because it was easier for the city to obtain the funds the state transferred ownership to the City of Ventura.

Mayor Tom Buford, working with the Ventura Chamber of Commerce and local boosters, established the Pier Into the Future Committee to help restore the Ventura Pier for the long term, Within hours of the first meeting the committee obtained pledges of over $100,000. Offering varying levels of support, the committee sought out “Deckhands” at $125 a pledge up to “Admirals” at $10.000 in a fundraising effort that is still ongoing, The committee even sold a special run of Chardonnay to add to the coffers. Augmented by taxpayer funds from the State
of California included in a bill signed by Governor George Deukmejian, and grants from the Coastal Conservacy and the Wildlife Conservacy, among other sources, divers began removing the damaged pilings. Though some discussion did occur regarding scrapping the pier entirely or rebuilding it, or parts, with steel, the use of wood was seen as essential in preserving the historic and architectural ambiance of the structure.

With the sound of barbershop quartets in the background and the sight of locals dressed in Victorian period regalia, a crowd estimated at 5000 witnessed its grand reopening of the Ventura Pier in 1993. Tragically, within two years of the 3.5 million dollar refurbishment, a major storm in 1995 damaged the end of the Ventura Pier yet again requiring additional investment by the city. This time repairs called for the elevation of the end of the pier and the use of steel pilings to offer additional protection from heavy surf.

Nearly 150 years after the Ventura Pier emerged on the coastline due to the efforts of local leaders, their investment in the future continues to enrich the community today. The mighty force of the Pacific will undoubtedly bring challenges to the Ventura Pier in the future, and the generations ahead will be called upon to save this unique component of our history that countless visitors have enjoyed and that locals view as an integral symbol of the city.

Notes: Quotes from the Ventura Signal and other historical material came from the Clippings FIle, “Ventura Pier,” Ventura County HIstory Museum Research Room. (Special thanks to Librarian/Archivist Charles Johnson.)

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