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WALKING ON WATER : Designed as Working Wharves, the Piers of O.C. Now Delight Pleasure Seekers From Seal Beach to San Clemente

June 27, 1991|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

When Southern California's first pier was built at Newport in 1888, it wasn't designed as a spot for lazy Sunday strolls or a bit of casual fishing, or as an obstacle course for surfers.

These were practical times. There was a rail line running down the middle of the wharf that carried passengers and farm products to ships that docked there. The Newport Dory Fishing Fleet, still in business today, set up alongside Newport Landing in 1891, with its small wooden boats setting out to sea every morning and returning by 9:30 a.m. to sell the catch.

The days of the working wharf came to an end in 1899, when the pioneering McFadden brothers sold both their wharf and the railroad and shipping was thereafter diverted to San Pedro and elsewhere. It wasn't long, though, before the recreational opportunities became apparent and piers became the focal points of budding resort colonies.

When Bay City, now Seal Beach, built its pier in 1906, it was, at 1,865 feet, the longest south of San Francisco. A roller coaster was imported from the San Francisco world's fair in 1915 and reassembled at the foot of the pier, and a dance hall joined it there.

There were failures too (two attempts to build an ocean wharf at Corona del Mar failed in the early 1900s), but piers sprang up in San Clemente, Balboa and Huntington Beach. The city of Newport Beach bought the old McFadden wharf in 1922 and converted it into a public fishing pier. Balboa built its still-standing Fun Zone, a short walk from the pier, in the 1930s.

Today, the piers still stand, to greater and lesser degrees, as picturesque reminders of a fast-dwindling Orange County past.

Something about walking out over the waves, about extending the hold of the land a few tenuous piling-supported steps, continues to hold its fascination. The Huntington Beach pier was largely destroyed in a series of storms in the 1980s, but civic leaders are continuing their drive to raise funds to put it back up. Today, more than 100 years after the McFaddens put up that first wharf, Huntington Beach sees its pier as a necessary anchor to an extensive downtown redevelopment project.

The charms and attractions of Orange County piers vary, but there are a few constants: fishing enthusiasts along the railings, ignoring the printed warnings against overhead casting; gulls hovering in hopes of a few loose fish scraps or french fries; strollers, alone or in couples and groups; and some of the most beautiful sunset views to be had.

A guide to Orange County piers, south to north:

* San Clemente: This picturesque wooden pier has an upscale little bar and restaurant near the land's end and a coffee-snack-tackle stand--a favorite hangout for the locals--at the far end. The view to the north is spectacular as the coastline curves away to Dana Point.

Miles of beach, much of it inaccessible by car, stretch in either direction. There are not many businesses within walking distance of the pier, however, as most of the hilly country here is residential.

One of the things differentiating this pier from others in the county is the bird life. Rather than the usual gulls, hundreds of pigeons flock along the wooden walkway. Pigeon food is sold at the tackle shop for those who want to feed the winged residents.

The pier is at the bottom of Avenida del Mar. Exit the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5) at Avenida Palizada and follow the signs through the city's twisting streets. A nice note for those who hate beach traffic: There's an Amtrak stop right at the foot of the pier.

* Aliso Beach: A 620-foot fishing pier culminating in a diamond-shaped head was built here in 1972. The pier itself, a strictly utilitarian affair, is set along a relatively uncluttered stretch of beach. Aliso Beach Pier is part of Aliso Beach County Park, and its amenities include parking, restrooms, a picnic area and a bike trail.

The park is in South Laguna, off Coast Highway north of Crown Valley Parkway.

* Balboa: Ruby's, a popular '50s-style diner, dominates the end of the pier, but there's still plenty of room for the fishing enthusiasts who flock here. Look before you sit down on any of the benches; they are often used to clean fish.

There are coin-operated telescopes along the railing, often monopolized in summer by teen-agers scanning the sunbathers on the beach. The view inland takes in the hills of Corona del Mar, the peaks of Saddleback and, on a clear day, the San Gabriel Mountains.

The pier and the nearby paths are heavily used by pedestrians, skaters and cyclists (skates and beach cruiser bicycles are available for rental--$5 an hour for either). Peninsula Park, which has grassy areas for games and picnicking, also has a bandstand and occasional concerts.

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