Iconic Pier’s History Rooted In Damage, Rebuilding

Iconic Pier’s History Rooted In Damage, Rebuilding

OCEAN CITY — One of the earliest casualties during Hurricane Sandy occurred Sunday night and into early Monday morning when huge waves demolished much of the seaward end of the iconic Ocean City Fishing Pier.

While no official report on the destruction has been released, pictures clearly show much of the historic pier has been washed away by the constant pounding of double-digit wave heights. Only support pilings can be seen jutting out of the raging surf with much of the decking already gone long before the height of the storm arrives.

With the heart of the storm coming on Monday, it was largely assumed locally that the pier would be further damaged, but it appears no more destruction took place than overnight Sunday.

Already, local residents and visitors are lamenting the demise of the famous pier, which has been a fixture on the Ocean City landscape for over a century. The pier has been damaged or destroyed several times in its history, which dates back to 1907 and the nascent years of the resort. Most recently, the t-shaped end of the pier was damaged during Hurricane Irene last year, but repairs were made and it was largely intact going into Hurricane Sandy.

The pier was first completed in 1907 and was considered a big achievement for the developing resort, according to “City on the Sand,” which recounts the history of the Ocean City. It had been three years in the making and was developed by a group of local investors who organized the Ocean City Pier and Improvement Company. The company’s president was William Taylor, so the structure was often referred to as Taylor’s Ocean Pier in its early days.

Since it was first built, the pier has been battered and wrecked by storms, fire and even ice. Throughout the years, it has always been rebuilt or restored although its length and overall structure has been altered over the years. In December 1925, a huge fire destroyed the pier and three blocks of the downtown area. The fire started around 7:30 a.m. at the old Eastern Shore Gas and Electric Company on Somerset Street and from the beginning, everything went wrong.

After several days of bitter cold weather, the fire hydrants in the downtown area were frozen. To get water to fight the blaze, firefighters cut holes in the ice and pumped water from the Sinepuxent Bay. According to “City on the Sand,” the smoke could be seen as far as 10 miles away. When the fire was finally extinguished, the heavy losses included the pier, two of the resort’s earliest hotels, the Atlantic and the Seaside, along with two blocks of the Boardwalk, Dolle’s Candyland and the Casino Theater.

In June 1929, the new Sinepuxent Pier and Improvement Company was organized with Salisbury lawyer Clarence Whealton as its president and the company obtained a new franchise from the town of Ocean City to complete a new 700-foot ocean fishing pier on the site of the old one destroyed by the 1925 fire. At the base of the pier was constructed the famous Pier Ballroom, the same building that exists today although it has undergone some changes over the decades.

During the height of its popularity, the Pier Ballroom was one of the most popular destinations in the resort as revelers danced the night away to Big Band music by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, according to “City on the Sand.” In sharp contrast to today, couples dressed in elegant evening dress strolled along the pier and visited the famous ballroom.

In 1959, a new pier company took over the franchise and attempted to build amusement concessions across the beach. However, the plan was voted down in a special referendum vote by city residents after months of controversy. The pier then slipped into years of decline after the controversial referendum vote.

In 1975, Ocean City developer Charles “Buddy” Jenkins opened a renovated pier complete with souvenir shops and amusements with the blessing of the Ocean City Council with a project that cost an estimated $1.5 million. Jenkins, who still holds the franchise rights, has long since added amusement rides with his Jolly Roger’s park including the iconic giant Ferris wheel.

In February 1979, a prolonged bitterly cold winter actually froze the ocean and huge chunks of ice crushed around 140 feet from the seaward end of the historic pier. Jenkins contended rebuilding the pier to its original length would provide little benefit to fishermen and the Ocean City Mayor and Council agreed to let it be repaired with its shortened length.  

After much of the seaward end was destroyed late Sunday night and early Monday morning, it remains to be seen if the structure will be rebuilt again, but history certainly appears to be on its side.