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Tom Marshall
Tom Marshall

By Tom Marshall

Though made almost entirely of wood, the San Clemente Pier was again last month the magnet for Independence Day fun. This is not to slight other local Fourth of July events, such as the running of the office chairs. As any city official may tell you, that event doesn’t really exist. It must be a classic case of mass hysteria. Psychologists from all over should swoop into town to analyze the two thousand or so people who claim to have seen the office chair races this year. But, I digress.

Returning to our main topic, the San Clemente Pier was built in 1928 by town founder Ole Hanson. The cost was a reported $75,000 and came in on-time and on-budget. That price would be a huge bargain by today’s monetary standards, but putting things in perspective, at that time a turkey dinner at a local cafe cost $1 per person. According to columnist Patricia Hobbs Hendry of the now defunct Sun Post News, “Twenty-five men and mules were used in 1928 to construct the Pier,” hopefully not interchangeably.

Designed by longtime resident Bill Ayers, Sr., the Pier originally ran farther into the blue Pacific than it does today. Although some non-wooden repairs and upgrades were made earlier this year, it is still a work of wooden art. Concrete has now been added to shore up the pilings. The total cost of this project is budgeted at nearly $1.8 million.

Two huge storms, in 1938 and 1983, took out the far reaches of the Pier, which is why the city decided not to rebuild the most exposed part of it. A picture of waves overtaking the Pier in 1983 is the most sought-after photo for sale in the Historical Society’s collection. You can purchase one online at or at our booth on the first Sunday of each month during the Village Art Faire on Avenida Del Mar (taking place Aug. 5 this month).

Until Dana Point Harbor was built in the 1960s, the Pier was also a commercial hub for San Clemente. A fleet of boats was based there for sport and commercial fishing and touring the area shoreline. The fishing boats spawned another, somewhat unique industry. According to From Fishcarts to Fiestas by Blythe Welton, a young boy named Fred noticed how tired the fishermen were when they returned to port after a day at sea. It was all they could do to haul their catch to shore. In true American spirit, the fishcarts industry was born. Local youth, bless their enterprising little hearts, added wooden sides to their wagons and offered to haul the catches of the day for a negotiable 20 cents a load.

The Pier also served as a drop-off point for bootleggers during prohibition. The “Rummies” would unload their illicit cargo through a trap door in the Pier until police finally caught up with them. As City Councilmember Lori Donchak noted in a recent email, “It was said San Clemente had the best stocked liquor cabinets in Southern California.”

Even today, the Pier is the heart of our town’s tourist appeal, so it’s still a vital component to the local economy. But, even more than that, it is the symbol of the San Clemente lifestyle. A romantic stroll at the ocean without getting your feet wet or sandy is available for locals and tourists alike. So on this, its 90th birthday, we salute the Pier and all those who have made it possible, especially Jim Nielsen and the folks at Pier Pride. They are co-hosting a special sunset cruise, “Secrets of the San Clemente Pier,” on Oct. 11. Contact Pier Pride or Council Member Donchak,, to reserve a spot.

Tom Marshall is a member of the board of directors of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.

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