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The Pier Reappears : For 121 years, the Ventura structure has undergone numerous repairs and rebuilding. Now, after four years of planning and reconstruction, the project may be completed as early as the end of the year. And things are different this time around.

July 29, 1993|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ocean humbles. This is particularly true where it meets the land.

Vast deep sheets of water glide toward shore, swell into waves, and, bumped up higher by the rising ocean floor, roll and crest and slam with a great break into the sand where we walk. On a really bad day, most things in the way get smashed.

Few structures are as basic as the ocean pier. Few things, however, take such a beating. High tide, low tide, winter and summer, whatever the ocean does, it does to the ocean pier.

The Ventura Pier, standing for 121 years, is its own museum of maritime punishment--batterings, eviscerations, vanishings. Natural things would simply happen.

A storm in 1877 took out decking and pilings. A storm in 1926 pushed high seas over the walkway, removed decking, sucked out pilings, and swept to sea--and death--George Proctor, the Ventura man who kept track of the pier's use as a commercial shipping wharf. A storm in 1937 neatly removed 1,000 feet of decking and pilings--roughly two-thirds of the pier's entire length. In the winter of 1949, it not only snowed in Ventura, but monster waves dug eight feet of sand away from the pilings below, threatening the stability of the structure.

Storms in 1969 that wiped out Ventura Harbor battered the pier. Winter storms in 1977 made easy victim of the structure, at this point further weakened by termites and dry-rot. And savage winter storms in 1986 sent 10-foot waves, each carrying tons of applied force, headlong into the structure, knocking out four pilings and forcing the closing of two-thirds of the pier.

For all this, the pier kept getting fixed, rebuilt, loved anew--all against the knowledge that on any day, at any hour, the ocean might go into some preposterous distemper, rise 20 feet, push a mile-long sheet of dark, swelled water down from San Miguel Island, and blow the thing away, tossing pilings that once were 70-foot Douglas fir trees from Oregon onto the Ventura beach like so many Popsicle sticks, kindling for giants.

It's a new day.

Again.

The Ventura Pier is, after four years of planning and one of massive rebuilding, reaching the point of full restoration, due for completion as early as the close of this year.

But things are different this time. What sets this restoration apart from earlier rehab projects is the sheer $3.5-million scale of it. Repair work just wouldn't do.

The pier--its entrance at the beach along with the restaurant, bait building and entire 1,958-foot length of decking and support members beneath--was stripped down to pilings that protruded from the water. And the thing got rebuilt to more exacting specifications while hewing, for historical purposes, to the original design of the pier.

The result is a totally reconstructed "new" pier that's stronger than it's been for decades--perhaps ever. Or, as Jim Ross, the pier's design engineer, put it: "It's fairly beefy. I mean, city firetrucks can go out on it."

Magical Places

Ideally there would be no need for firetrucks.

Today's Ventura Pier will be a safe and quiet promenade, a fishing deck, a place to feel happily lost--and that much closer to--not to mention 20 feet higher than--the great, mysterious ocean below.

Piers are magical places, that way. They achieve so much.

The great piers of Atlantic City forever defined, and set at a breathtaking distance, that kinky glittering Oz of a place.

Pier-like docks that "pave" Louisiana's bayous are for so much more than getting to the fishing skiff: They put you on the water, offer a view down into dark still waters roiling with alien life. And then, just as quickly, they offer a view back to the shacks and stilt houses so thick with family life.

Every pier not only defines its place but comes with its own purpose, its own legacies. Ventura's is no different.

It didn't even start as a pier. Indeed, the drive for a pier in agricultural Ventura in the years leading to 1872 was anything but aesthetic or recreation-related. Instead, it would make for good business and link Ventura to its own surrounding region, not to mention the world.

The railroad was more than 16 years away. There were no cars, no roads as we know them; horse-drawn buggies and carts churned up choking dust in the dry months and broke axles in mud during winter rains. The city itself was locked in by the Ventura River to the north and Santa Clara to the south, both torrential during rains. The way most passengers and freight arrived in Ventura was by ship.

The ships, however, had to anchor offshore, with cargo and passengers alike undergoing precarious unloading to lighters, or small barges, that would transport cargo and people to the beach.

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