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A Bridge to Nowhere

Mar 19, 2018 09:40AM ● Published by Donia Moore

The pier in the 1930s.

Gallery: The Pier [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

“Mostly, out on the pier you understand that you're not really on the way to somewhere else. You're already there.” 
noted Jean Fleming in “Great Piers of California.


by Donia Moore

Just after Christmas in 1939, a fierce wind and surging tide pounded the pilings under the pier like a raging bull. Trash cans gave up their lids and liners to the maelstrom. The pier trembled 
as the white-capped breakers rose over the deck, then it failed.

The rare hurricane that hit the California coast that year destroyed the beloved 1,200-feet long wooden municipal fishing & pleasure pier, a gift to San Clemente residents from founder Ole Hanson. 

It tore 400 feet from the end of the pier and 80 feet from its mid-section beyond the surf area. It took out the cafe, tackle shop and the Owl Boat Company. It was rebuilt in 1940 for $40,000. In 1983, the fierce storms that affected many of Orange County’s coastal landmarks once again destroyed the pier. Once more, it was rebuilt, stronger and sturdier this time. 

Winds of Change
Rebuilding the pier in 1985 totaled $1.4 million. A higher end section and polyethylene-coated steel piles made it a great place to watch the storms roll in. Once home to sport fishing operations, the second destruction of San Clemente’s pier opened the way for charter boat businesses to relocate to the protected Dana Point Harbor. As the man-made jetty tamed the ocean waves, Dana Point became the region's prime area for fishing boats, whale watching excursions and daily trips to Catalina Island. 

A few years ago, Jack Lashbrook, longtime San Clemente resident and City Patriarch, shared some of his first memories of San Clemente’s surf. He moved here with his family as a child of 11 in 1937 from Illinois. He remembers being mesmerized by the sight of the waves breaking on the sand and against the pier. “I had never seen anything like it.” In 1939, Jack Lashbrook was at the beach watching as massive waves generated by a Mexican hurricane took down the San Clemente Pier.

After the town passed a bond in 1940 to rebuild the pier, he was back as a teenager, working in the tackle shop, as a crew member on sportfishing boats, and helping his mother, Lois, with the Lashbrooks’ cafe at the end of the pier. His family took over the restaurant when it was rebuilt in 1940 since the original owners decided not to continue their business. The restaurant was very popular with early morning sport fishermen before most of the charters moved to Dana Point.
"At 4 a.m. I would be at home in bed and get a call to get down there to help," Lashbrook said. He witnessed his first El Niño-powered storm from the beach as it took down the pier. The warming of the Pacific’s equatorial waters can result in heavy rain in California, causing some massive storms. Back then, he said, they just called it rain and big waves.
After the town passed a bond in 1940 to rebuild the pier, he was back there as a teenager, working in the tackle shop and as a crew member on sportfishing boats and helping his mother, Lois, operate the Lashbrooks’ cafe at the end of the pier. 

Bootlegged Booty
The San Clemente Pier wasn't always the placid place it is today. At one time it served as a port for smuggling operations into Orange County during the Prohibition of the early 1900s.  The 18th Amendment became law in 1919, though it didn’t take effect until the following year, on Jan. 17, 1920. In preparation, Congress passed the Volstead Act over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto in October 1919. It provided for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment’s liquor ban. With all the legal activity paving the way, even the average citizen had received plenty of advance warning that the liquor ban was imminent and many had stores of their favorite spirits socked away.
Still, the arrival of Prohibition led to some shocking visuals for alcoholic beverage partisans. The Los Angeles Times reported on the symbolic dumping of 35,000 gallons on Jan. 19, 1920 from the North Cucamonga Winery on Alameda Street down the drains by U.S. Revenue agents in accordance with the new law. 

Southern California had its share of violent incidents, but its smaller population and more wide-open landscape made rum-running a fairly easy task at first, especially along its miles of undeveloped coastline on its own rum row. Larger ships transported the liquor to smaller boats in offshore waters, sometimes using the Channel Islands for cover. Two Harbors and the Isthmus at Catalina reportedly was a favorite spot.

Smuggling liquor and spirits into local ports became a profitable industry in Orange County. Seal Beach was a major entry port for illegal rum running, with other smaller ports like San Clemente helping to channel deliveries to inland communities. Fast boats regularly outran the Coast Guard to successfully deliver their contraband to the more isolated beaches along the Orange County coast.

At bigger ports like Seal Beach, liquor was rolled off ships in barrels that floated to shore, loaded onto trucks, and carted off to secure hiding spots in underground bars and businesses.    
Today the only alcohol you’re likely to find on the pier is at Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar, but you can find coffee and sustenance at the Pier Grill and Tackle at the far end of the pier. A stroll on the pier offers close-up views of surfers and paddleboarders, volleyball players, sunbathers and occasionally a pod of dolphin swimming off its end. You may even see a friendly pelican resting on the rail. Restaurants, a bar and those friendly itinerant fishermen make our “bridge to nowhere” the somewhere we want to be.

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