On Thursday, December 30, 2004, the City of Jacksonville Beach dedicated and opened the new Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier. Don Streeter, pier manager with Dania Pier Management, noted the incredible turnout citing attendance that topped the other two recently opened piers. Since losing our old pier after irreparable Hurricane Floyd damage in 1999, we have been lonely for the opportunity to walk far and above the waters of the Atlantic, drop a line, and see what might bite. No longer do we have to wait.
Though this is the most well-designed pier Jacksonville has ever seen, it is not our first, and some old timers might argue about it being the best. Our first pier, located between 2nd and 3rd Avenues North, in what was then known as Pablo Beach, was constructed of wood with palmetto tree pilings. In June of 1922, the daughter of Mr. Shad, president of The Pier Company, broke a bottle of ocean water on the end of the pier, christening it "Shad's Pier".
The opening was quite an event, and Mr. Shad stopped at nothing to make it memorable. The pier had yet to be electrified, so he installed his own 10-watt electric generating system. Hundreds of lights were run along the promenade and throughout the structure, making it visible as far away as Atlantic Beach. Although the pier offered ocean fishing, it wasn't long before it was referred to as the dancing pier. Built relatively close to land but on the pier nonetheless was a large dance pavilion, La Presa. The dance hall hosted some of the best bands of the time and was the highlight of evening entertainment for many years. Even when there was not a band playing, the locals were almost as happy dancing the night away to the jukebox.
Shad's pier was not without it's share of problems. Storms severely damaged the pier in 1925 and 1932, and then a fire in 1938 caused damage once again. By this time, Pablo Beach had changed its name to Jacksonville Beach and was incorporated as a city in 1925. The owners were able to rebuild the pier each time, and it remained a popular evening destination until Friday, October 13, 1962 when a fire gutted the dance hall and burned a large portion of the pier. Rebuilding was not an option this time.
Shortly after that, recognizing the need for a pier, a new all wood pier, owned by R.L. Williams, was constructed at 6th Avenue South. Some of the locals were hesitant to rejoice, as there was not a dance pavilion on the pier. Overall though, the pier was welcomed and accepted for what is was, a fishing pier. Originally extending 1,200 feet into the Atlantic, the Jacksonville Beach Pier was quite a structure, until September 9, 1964 when Hurricane Dora made a direct hit. Heading due west with sustained winds at 125 mph, this Category 3 storm hit at nearly high tide creating ocean levels eight feet above normal. The pier, less than a year old at the time, lost 192 feet to Dora. After necessary demolition and repairs, the remaining structure was 800 feet long.
Though the pier had been significantly reduced in length, there was no arguing the value of what still remained. From an afternoon of fishing, to a romantic stroll along the rickety old walkway, it could not be beat. One of the neatest things about fishing on the Jacksonville Beach Pier was the way it swayed with the waves. Ultimately, that swaying motion probably led to the demise of the pier, but while it was still with us, you could close their eyes and imagine that you were out to sea on a wonderful fishing adventure.
When my little brother came to visit in May of 1994, he caught a small hammerhead off the end of the pier. Other fish were caught that day, but there is something infinitely exciting about landing such a powerful creature, even if it was only a foot or two long! That feeling must have been only a fraction of how Blackie Ressor felt on June 5th, 1975 when he landed the world record hammerhead shark right off of Jacksonville Beach Pier. The shark weighed in at 703 pounds and measured 14 feet, 4 inches! The record has since been broken, and Allen Ogle who caught a 991-lb. hammerhead out of Sarasota, Florida holds the current record.
Hurricanes and Florida have become synonymous this past year, but a near miss in 1999 is how we lost our old friend, rickety and swaying as it may have been. Hurricane Floyd raged unpredictably in the waters of the Atlantic, triggering one of the most catastrophic attempts at evacuation ever. Those of us that were able watched the news. The news cameras were fixed on the end of the pier as it swayed back and forth like a drunken sailor. We all watched as the Jacksonville Beach Pier, after hours of relentless pounding by the waves, swayed one final time before the end of it went crashing into the ocean.
For those of us who were avid pier fisherman, and for those of us who had an odd affection for the pier, it was a very sad moment. At the very least, we knew it was the end of pier fishing for the fall bite. Realistically though, seeing the damage as we did, we knew deep down that it would be a very long time before we could fish the pier again. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend.
Now, in its place, right where 5th Avenue South dead ends in to the ocean, you'll find Ocean Front Park. Designed in a manner to offer a good deal of information about the hurricanes that have impacted the First Coast and the surrounding plants and wildlife, it also serves as a memorial to the pier. Centered in the park is a beautiful sculpture by Kristen Visbal, commissioned in celebration of the park. But more moving and visual than all of that is the sidewalk. In the southwest corner of the park lies a brick map of the state of Florida (below). Beginning at the sidewalk on the south side of the park, and continuing to the map, are two curving lines, one in red bricks, one in tan. The lines represent the paths that Hurricanes Dora, (in red), and Floyd, (in tan), took as they ravaged the coastline. As you walk along the paths of the storms, it is hard not to imagine the wind and the waves pounding the very spot you are standing with enough force to destroy homes, businesses, and piers.
The powers that be in the City of Jacksonville Beach led the effort to save the pier and were instrumental in partnering with the City of Jacksonville to purchase it. Additionally, they contributed $250,000 dollars to help with reconstruction. Soon thereafter, it was determined that it would cost almost as much to rebuild the old pier as it would take to construct a new pier. After much discussion, the decision was made to construct a new pier and to relocate it north of where it had been, to the commercial district of Jacksonville Beach.
Originally, the new pier was supposed to be 1000 feet long, but luckily for us fisherman, someone thought to check the topography of the ocean floor at the proposed end of the pier. Turns out that there was a sandbar there that would have made it very shallow, even at high tide. So a local charter captain was called in to do an evaluation of the area and determine what would need to happen to make it a first class fishing pier. His answer was seemingly simple: make it 300 feet longer, and it'll be the best fishing pier in the state. As is the case with anything involving local government, 300 feet might as well have been a mile, but in the capable and persistent hands of all involved in the project, it was approved.
Jacksonville Beach was finally going to get a new pier, and with a budget of $3.5 million dollars, it was going to be a nice one! Plans included 1300 feet of handicap accessible pier, (20 feet wide), four cleaning stations, (two facing north, and two facing south), benches and sunshades along the way. At the seaward end, there was to be a 48- by 31-foot T-platform that would also serve in the future for fireworks displays, and at the entrance, a bait shop and restroom facility. At high tide, the water will be about 20 feet deep allowing access to deeper ocean species.
The project was completed as planned, within budget, and none too soon for the eagerly waiting fisherman! Though the pier's structure is primarily concrete, it's wooden deck panels are designed to break away in the event of a severe storm making it more resistant to the force of the waves and the wind. Needless to say, the pier no longer sways gently with the waves, it is now a formidable opponent to the forces of Mother Nature, and it will not likely crash into the Atlantic any time soon!
Since 1922, Jacksonville Beach has recognized and satisfied the need for an ocean fishing pier. Thanks to a combined effort by the cities of Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach, the Duval County Tourism Development Council, the mayors past and present of both sites, and countless other city officials, we once again boast an incredible structure of which we can all be proud. As we lost our old friend and sadly said goodbye, we now welcome our new friend, (one of the best in the state I might add), and are eagerly creating new memories as each day goes by.