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Orange County | Orange Peeled A LOOK AT LIFE INSIDE
THE COUNTY

Newport Pier Can Take a Long Walk in History

May 17, 2004|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

A carving at the end of the Newport Pier has become part of its lore.

Etched into the wooden railing creased deeply by the fish hooks of time, the word "POPS" stares up at anyone who bothers to look. Only a few do. And fewer still understand what it means.

The man called Pops "was well-known," says Scott Nakata, 37, a Garden Grove fisherman who's come here for years. "He used to fish in this corner and always had a billboard up with pictures of himself and the big fish he'd caught."

Call it a piece of Southern California's pier culture: Fishermen may die, but piers never do. Well, only rarely, and usually in the clutches of major storms. Four other stilted structures grace coastal Orange County: at Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Balboa and San Clemente. The Aliso Pier in South Laguna surrendered to the waves a few years ago.

The one that stands out as the most historic and -- to hear fishermen tell it -- the most generous is the place that Pops once called home.

"He fished here until he was in his 80s," Nakata said. "He was very friendly when people asked questions. He died of a heart attack seven or eight years ago."

Newport Beach officials say they don't know how many of the estimated 8 million to 10 million people who visit their beaches each year also tread the concrete-decked pier, but they believe it's a high percentage.

First constructed as McFadden Wharf in 1888, the pier began as a commercial dock where ships unloaded and loaded commodities such as lumber and fur. Back then, historians say, railroad cars ran to the end of the pier to facilitate the trade that would help build Orange County. But almost from the beginning, the structure also was popular among locals who loved to fish.

Jim Turner, the city's lifeguard operations captain who manages the station at the base of the pier, attributes the good fishing to a submarine canyon, which, he says, begins at the end of the 1,050-foot structure and drops off to an unknown depth.

"Because of [the pier's] proximity to deep water," he says, "the nutrients that come up leave lots for the fish to eat."

The result is a rich mix of sea life, including mackerel, sharks, sardines, halibut and, in the old days, even yellowtail.

Eventually the Newport Wharf and Lumber Co., which built the pier, sold it to the Pacific Electric Railroad Co. -- which, in turn, sold it to Newport Beach for $5,000 in 1922. The city spent an additional $30,000 rebuilding it by, among other things, removing the railroad tracks, a restaurant -- Newport's first -- and a fishing tackle store. In 1939, a hurricane washed away 500 feet of the end of the pier. And sometime in the late 1980s, Turner said, handrails were added to keep people safe.

"They would lose their balance and fall in, and we had lots of rescues," he says.

Two years ago, according to Turner, the pier was completely refurbished with money from a legal settlement following the American Trader oil spill.

Among the improvements: concrete decking covered in plastic over reinforced steel. "If it lives up to our hopes," he says, "it won't have to be refurbished again for another 100 years."

That would be just fine with the regulars who call this place their own.

"I like it here," says Jeff Romig, 47, who comes from San Bernardino several times a year. "I like the ocean and I like fishing."

On a recent weekday afternoon, the only sound at the end of the pier, besides the gush of the wind and the gentle whoosh of fish lines, were the distant strains of Christian music coming from a portable radio beside one of the fishermen.

Richard Adame, 39, of Brea took a day off to spend it fishing with his 11-year-old daughter, Sydni.

"I've been doing this since I was a kid," he says. "I used to come out here on the bus with my poles. I want her to remember fishing with her old man when she was a kid."

Sydni, meanwhile, is too busy pulling up sardines to say much at all. "It's fun out here," she finally offers during a lull in the bites. "I like hanging out with my dad."

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