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Cambria resident Jeff Walters took this photo of erosion at the bottom of San Simeon pier pilings.
California State Parks has blocked off a narrow strip on the north side of the iconic pier in San Simeon and launched a formal study of the problems that are making that part of the circa-1957 structure potentially unsafe. According to superintendent Dan Falat, the agency began assessing the pier’s condition in early April after a call from The Tribune alerted him to the problem. Falat heads the San Luis Obispo Coast District of State Parks that includes San Simeon Bay and the pier, which are part of the coastal Hearst San Simeon State Park. Since April, Falat, his staff and an engineer from the Sacramento state parks office have assessed the pier’s condition and compared it to results from a full study done in 2018. After discovering some changes, they determined that a formal assessment of the situation is necessary, something the engineer confirmed during the last week of May. According to Falat, it became obvious recently that State Parks needed to block off “a section of the pier, about 40 feet by 5 feet, on the north side of the end of the pier, until the study is done. We saw a bit of sagging, and we want it to be safe for the public to be on the pier.” He said initial examinations showed that the rest of the pier is stable. The blocked-off area is above the site where, years ago, there was a ramp and landing area onto which commercial fishing and party boats would load and offload passengers. Those areas were damaged, as was the pier, during severe weather in the mid-1990s. The pier was repaired, but the pricey, multi-section aluminum gangplank wound up on the shore. So the landing area was decommissioned, and commercial tour operations there eventually ceased. Falat said State Parks determine when the engineers can do the assessment, figure out what the issues are and prepare the report. That will define the scope of the damage and what has to be done to fix it. He didn’t have an estimate yet of how long that might take or how much it and any repairs might cost. Cambria resident worries about pier’s safety Jeff Walters of Cambria, whose family has been in the area since 1980, said he loves the San Simeon pier and worries about its viability and safety. “I was walking over it, and it felt like the entire north side of the pier could fall out from under you,” he said. “If you’d wiggle or shimmy up and down, it felt like the whole thing would shake. “ In April, Walters sent The Tribune some photos he’d taken of things on the pier that concerned him, including damaged parts, degraded pylon footings and a pylon floating in the surf, “yawing up and down.” “Actually, one was pointing at an angle toward the beach, and when the tide receded, it would push the pylon up so one end would stick in the ocean floor,” he said. “That was a big alarm for me.” “A large beam sticking out from the pier used to be supported by two telephone pole-like pylons,” he said. Those pylons are gone now. When Walters learned that the state has ordered a full study and report on the pier’s condition, he said, “I’m glad to hear they’ve done what they have and what else they’re going to do. I’m glad they didn’t shut the pier down entirely. But I want the pier to last a long time.” “I always encourage people to share their concerns with us, Falat said. “I listen to everybody and then ground truth it myself. “ He said Walters’ activism “is a testament to that community involvement. When we hear about their issues, as we did in this case, we’ll evaluate them, take them under consideration and do what we have to do.” History of North Coast pier According to 1999 reports prepared by docents of the Cambria Historical Society, the current pier replaced one that was built by former U.S. Sen. George Hearst in 1878 as a commercial venture for whaling and shipping. As docent researcher Carole Adams wrote, the elaborate old pier structure was “20 feet wide, extending 750 feet from shore, widening to 50 feet for another 250 feet seaward. Steel tracks and wheeled platforms transported merchandise. A 48-by-100-foot warehouse, which still stands, was built at the head of the pier.” The cost for the new wharf was $20,000, Adams wrote. “The pines and eucalyptus trees on the point were planted in 1890 by Hearst, who thought the trunks might be used to replace pier pilings,” she wrote. “Instead, they became a windbreak and source of firewood.” After Southern Pacific Railroad came into the county and goods were transported by rail and trucking, commercial use of the pier diminished gradually. “In 1916,” Adams said, “the last commercial steamer to call at San Simeon, the Aurelia, unloaded lumber.” However, the pier was put back into active status when Hearst’s son, media magnate William Randolph Hearst, began building his hilltop estate overlooking the coast and the pier. That San Simeon estate is now known as Hearst Castle. “The pier that juts into the bay today was built in 1957 by San Luis Obispo County for recreational purposes,” Adams wrote. “In 1969, it was extended 300 feet by the county and the state Department of Fish and Game. It has been operated by the State Department of Parks and Recreation as part of the Hearst Memorial Park since 1971.” (It’s now known as William Randolph Hearst San Simeon Memorial State Beach.) “The land adjacent to the pier,” she continued, “was donated by the Hearst family following the death of William Randolph Hearst in 1951.” Adams added that, when the tide is low, sharp-eyed observers can spot “remnants of the old pier” in the surf. According to Jim Webb, a longtime Cambria fisherman and fishing expert, his friend George Valenzuela took over fishing and tour operations at the pier from Virg’s Landing in 1988 and operated them through about 1993. That’s when two of the boats, which belonged to Virg’s, wound up on shore during a series of storms, and he was out of business. According to a news release in Webb’s files, Virg’s returned to San Simeon in May 1995. The firm operated there for a few years, until, according to Webb and Virg’s employee Bob Bodin, another big storm hit and damaged the pier and landing. Webb said the storm “ripped the elaborate, welded, marine-grade aluminum ramp that was critical for getting people from the pier to the boat. The ramp had multiple sections, each of which could be raised and lowered.” The ramp wound up on the shore, he said. It was transferred to a Hearst Castle utility yard, where “it sat for a long time, until it was repurposed to be the bridge on the trail from the upper elephant seal lookout to Piedras Blancas,” Webb said. Webb said that changing conditions in the late 1990s and early 2000s made near-shore fishing in that area less productive for sport fishermen, who were competing with those plying the commercial live-fishery industry. Regularly scheduled fishing, whale watching and scenic boat tours eventually stopped in the pier, he said. Subsequently, new regulations were put in place to protect the near-shore species that had been diminished by live fishing along the shores of Cambria and San Simeon.
Kathe Tanner has been writing about the people and places of SLO County’s North Coast since 1981, first as a columnist and then also as a reporter. Her career has included stints as a bakery owner, public relations director, radio host, trail guide and jewelry designer. She has been a resident of Cambria for more than four decades, and if it’s happening in town, Kathe knows about it.
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