Did you know that the St. Johns County Ocean and Fishing Pier is now considered among the top third of attractions in the St. Augustine area on TripAdvisor, with a rating of 4.5 out of five stars. The gift shop is boasting record revenues generated from pier admissions, merchandise sales and rentals. That revenue, however may not be nearly enough to fund a new pier when the current pier nears the end of its lifespan.
Humble beginnings, A New Deal for St. Augustine
In the 1800s, Anastasia Island was called South Beach. From St. Augustine, beachgoers took a ferry over the Matanzas River at King Street, and then rode a donkey cart on dirt roads to the lighthouse. Later a wooden bridge was built and visitors took the South Beach Railroad from the bridge to the beach. The beach was always a popular recreational area, but it lacked a fishing pier. When Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic recovery program came about in the late 1930s, county leaders saw their opportunity. In 1937, they applied to the federal Works Progress Administration for funds to construct a recreation complex that would include a seawall, boardwalk and fishing pier, flanked by a pair of hotel buildings. St. Augustine Historical Society documents show the county received about $66,000 to construct a 1,344-foot pier and 840 feet of concrete seawall. The next year they asked for another $68,000 to construct two coquina rock buildings to house a life-saving station and recreational rooms. Susan Parker, executive director of the St. Augustine Historical Society, wrote in her article, “The St. Augustine Beach Hotel; A New Deal Project,” that these projects were “conceived as an impetus for beach development.”
Completed in July 1939, the 1,300-foot wooden pier was believed to extend further into the ocean than any other pier along the Atlantic Coast. This boast was very short-lived, though. The first of many damaging tropical storms hit in October 1939, wiping out 500 feet of the pier and demolishing the rest room pavilion. Another 500 feet were heavily damaged. The county applied for WPA funds to rebuild the pier, adding a T-shape at the end. It had to be shortened to just 800 feet. During St. Augustine’s 375th anniversary celebration in 1940, they held a “gala opening” for the official St. Augustine Beach Recreation Project. All too soon World War II “dampened the leisurely, carefree character of the beach front complex,” Parker wrote.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard controlled all access to the beach during WWII. Civil defense volunteers searched the sea for submarines and the skies for enemy airplanes. No one was allowed on Anastasia Island after dark without identification and those few allowed through had to drive with their headlights off. Turbulent times St. Augustine Beach was incorporated in 1959. The pier was holding its own until the fall of 1962 when a nor’easter rendered the original pier structurally unsound. The beach suffered terrible erosion.
In the summer of 1964, the beach around the pier made international news when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) held civil rights demonstrations, known as “swim-ins” or “wade-ins,” in an attempt to integrate all-white beach areas. Historians said this particular tactic was unique to St. Augustine Beach. In fall of 1964, Hurricane Dora, the first hurricane in 50 years to strike St. Augustine directly, tore off the end of the pier and sent waves crashing over the seawall into the coquina buildings. The pier stayed open for fishing but the beach erosion and the damaged buildings made the area unattractive to visitors. The hotel and restaurants closed. Erosion continued to threaten the seawall, especially during a northeaster in Feb. 1973. A nor’easter in 1978 took another piece off the end and caused extensive damage to the pilings. Concrete shields were placed around them, but they were damaged when Hurricane David blew through. A concrete-bolstered pier opened in 1984 to replace the wooden New Deal pier. It was now 1,000 feet long.
Recreation and renourishment The pavilion, which hosts concert and events, was built in 1998. After this, the era of sand renourishment officially began. Between 2001 and 2012, millions of yards of sand were added to the beach in three big installment projects, according to The Record archives. These projects were done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a 50-year commitment to keep the beach renourished. The pier was again rebuilt in 2002, with the help of a $17 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to restore the coastline. In 2011, the county approved $300,000 for repair work hoping to extend the life of the pier for another 10 years. Barring another hurricane or mean nor’easter, the pier as it appears as 2014 comes to a close this week, is how it is likely to stay until around 2021. Plain and simple.