Pier into the Past: Why We Need History Front and Center

The Ventura Pier. | Photo: Courtesy Hank Tovar

Our Ventura Pier has size on its side. It is currently 1,958 feet long. Originally built in 1872 to accommodate steamships and commerce, it was reputedly once the longest wooden pier in the United States. Or California. Depending on who is doing the reputing.

Size matters, but not so much to me. I love our Ventura Pier for smaller reasons.

Pronging out into the Pacific at the base of our folded hills, our pier is visible from almost any high point in town. Walk our beaches and, in the distance, it wavers like a child's matchstick project. Sit on the sand at its base (on a calm day) and it whispers a lovely song any ocean (and pier) lover knows -- quiet sighs and eternal lappings, and maybe the faintest creaks of wooden adjustings -- that are salve for the soul.

I come to our pier often, but since communing is best done alone. Most of the time I sit beneath the very end of the pier in a kayak. I have done this countless times. It's one of my favorite places. My sitting there has practical value (it gives me a chance to rest), but mostly it has magical value. Yes there are the sighings and lappings, a hushed serenity I have found in only a few other places, deep inside a cave or diving in the equally silent world of submerged shipwrecks. It's also fun watching the swells rise and fall about the pilings. At the waterline, the pilings are crusted with fat balls of mussels that resemble alien pods. When the swell is bigger, as the waves pass the water rises high above these mussel thickets, and then, as it drops again, water spills from the mussels in thousands of tiny waterfalls. I love the smell of creosote -- it brings back memories of honky-tonk boardwalks and summer romance -- and the cooing of pigeons strutting smartly about the overhead beams sounds like a mother's murmurings. You can see that it is a nice place.

I have come to the pier at dawn, in rain and storm, and more than once at night, the lights from our pier throwing wobbling fingers across the water and the stars winking as if this place is our secret. Often I feel like I could sit for a very long time, and sometimes I do, for I am less militaristic about exercise than I once was. It is nice to be carried away.

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No matter what my initial mood (paddling alone on the ocean is the finest therapy), eventually my mind drifts to the same place. For beneath the pier, alongside the smell of creosote, there is a faint musty smell, like a grandmother's attic. The smell of the past. Bobbing beneath the pier it's easy to imagine that the footfalls overhead belong to crewmen loading crates of produce (our pier was once the cornerstone of Ventura County's agricultural, construction, and oil trade) -- and that the occasional fisherman's shout (the fishing is good off our pier) is a first mate barking orders to a crew moving only as fast as they are asked.

While it is a lovely place to stroll and fish and drift in daydream, more than anything our pier is history front and center. We need to know where we came from. And we need to be reminded in the bright light of day.

Every town needs a place like this. Many places actually. Places where the past is not tucked behind glass or framed in dim light, but where you can walk right up and rub against it (not the mussels), where you can inhale the scents and sounds, and, closing your eyes, imagine someone not so different from you grousing about being worked like a mule. But as we all know these places are disappearing daily. And once they are gone, then we peer at our past through dim light and reflected glass and it becomes something text book musty and not something from life.

Fortunately our pier is under no threat of disappearing. As I mentioned, it is quite large, and so disappearing would be quite the job, although the ocean has made concerted attempts to accomplish this task. The Ventura Pier has received numerous pummelings. The most notable, in recent years, occurred in December 1995 when swells up to 18 feet high clawed away some 400 feet of the pier, blithely removing dozens of pilings, many of them original pilings from the 1872 pier. Also of interesting note, city workers found an $80,000 copper sculpture dubbed "Wavespout" -- recently installed at the ocean end of the pier -- washed ashore in several pieces. A six-foot circle of thick copper tubing designed to mimic the action of a naturally formed blowhole, with 18 foot swells rumbling beneath the pier "Wavespout" did so in spades, resembling less of a spout and something more like Sputnik. The San Francisco artist who designed "Wavespout" told a reporter his goal was to "directly link the ocean and its rhythms to man." In this he was wildly successful.

Under the Ventura Pier. | Photo: Courtesy Joe Spota

As you might imagine, repairing a pier is expensive. The pier was renovated in 1993 for $3.2 million ("Wavespout" was part of that renovation, as was a ceremonial ribbon cutting and the firing of cannons from a flotilla of boats). In early 1995, our pier underwent an additional $500,000 reconstruction. Last December, pilings were found floating in Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. Mother Nature cares little for man's time table.

Yes our pier is large, but our pier will not disappear into the mists of memory because somebody is looking out for it. In 1993, a group of community leaders created Pier into the Future, a non-profit group that has since created a $1 million endowment fund to preserve, maintain, and enhance our pier (they've contributed more than $460,000 to the City of Ventura over the past 20 years). It's a fine community effort, with residents adopting beach and pier benches or, also for a feel good fee, having their name inscribed on the pier's granite honor roll, wisely situated at the pier's beach end. Pier into the Future also throws a whopping good fundraising party once a year, a happy combination of food and wine called "Pier Under the Stars." Visitors (and locals) can also pop into the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau to buy a pier sweatshirt, hat, or note cards. Every cent goes to preserving the pier. I like this. It's what communities do, and a little like the scene in "It's a Wonderful Life" when everyone chips in to bail out George Bailey's Bedford Falls Building and Loan.

It feels good. Like creosote on the breeze.

In the interest of honest journalism, not everyone is overwhelmed by our pier. We have no roller coasters or arcades. Opined a Yelp poster; "I was not impressive by this beach/pier."

Well, I am not impressive by your command of English.

Another Yelper wrote, "Ventura Pier, well, I grew up there, it hasn't changed a whole lot."

Which, in large part, is the glorious point.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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