Pismo Beach builds a pier

Posted by David Middlecamp on July 23, 2013 

Photo taken in mid-1890s shows original Pismo Pier built for $14,613 a decade earlier. A Ferris wheel whirls in the foreground. Photo courtesy of History Center of San Luis Obispo County


Most San Luis Obispo County piers started as wharfs.

We see them today as a place to fish or have a snack and watch the surfers and waves. However, most were built as lifelines to commerce and travel.

In the era before wharfs, passengers and freight would come ashore by boat in the isolated cow counties.

Judge Henry Amos Tefft was a friend of William Dana of Nipomo and a persuasive speaker. Impatient to get ashore during a fierce December storm in 1852, he talked the captain of the steamer Ohio into launching a boat ashore.

High surf capsized the boat, drowning Tefft and three others.

The main street in Nipomo is now named for the impatient 29-year-old judge.

Mark Hall-Patton wrote about the Pismo Beach Pier of a century earlier in this story published Nov. 2, 1989. A paste-up error garbled some of the article and I have attempted to fix the paragraphs.

New pier at Pismo had stiff competition in 1883

One of the favorite activities of tourists visiting Pismo Beach today is walking along the pier. From its deck, one has a sweeping view of the beach from Port San Luis to Point Conception.

The pier we see today is not the first one built at Pismo Beach. In 1881, long before the townsite of Pismo Beach had been laid out, a wharf was constructed for shipping crops and asphaltum by boat. In the August 20, 1881, issue of the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the wharf was described as 1,400 feet long and 22 feet above low tide, 18 feet above high tide. The ocean end of the wharf stood in 18 feet of water at low tide. The wharf had not yet been finished when this article was written, but already 30,000 sacks of grain had arrived for shipment from the wharf.

The wharf was built by the Meherin Brothers, with the credit for its inception given to D.J. Meherin, one of the four brothers. Meherin’s original idea was to begin a steamship line to connect our county with San Francisco. While this idea did not work out, the need for a shipping wharf other than John Harford’s at Port San Luis was recognized.

John Michael Price, who owned the land on which the wharf was to be built, leased the land to the Meherin Brothers in April 1881, the same month Mary Ann Price, one of the daughters, married Michael Meherin.

The 15-year lease was subject to some restrictions. First among these was that a wharf would be built by the Meherin Brothers, along with necessary warehouses and other structures for the shipping of grain and any other merchandise. The other stipulation stated that the Meherin Brothers “shall not be allowed to open hotel, bar, grocery or restaurant, or conduct any other business except that aforementioned.”

The cost of the lease was $10 per year for the first two years, and $50 per year for the next three years, $100 for the next five years and $200 per year for the last five years. Obviously the Mehrins expected success from their venture.

The wharf was completed in September 1881. The wharf had cost $14,000 to build, and had been built by a shareholding company founded by the Meherin Brothers. Eight hundred shares were issued, each having a par value of $20, to raise the necessary money. D.J. Meherin was quoted as saying the wharf saved the people of the county $35,000 in 1882 because competition forced the Pacific Coast Steamship Line to lower its rates.

The wharf was a success, though the completion of the Pacific Coast Railway to Arroyo Grande in 1882 began a rate war between the Pacific coast Steamship Company and the Pismo Wharf. In a petition drafted by over 100 shippers of produce in the South County in 1883, the writers: “Resolved, That we will do all in our power to sustain the Pismo Wharf and encourage the Meherin Brothers, in an enterprise which has already been of so much benefit to our community.”

Cut-throat competition was not the only problem facing the wharf. In 1884, 250 feet of the wharf were washed out in a storm, including a pile driver and donkey engine, 300 sacks of barley, and 450 sacks of beans. In 1885, it was damaged by fire. In 1886, Price decided to subdivide part of his Rancho El Pismo adjacent to the wharf. He had a town surveyed by R.R. Harris to be named El Pismo. In 1887, the Pismo Beach Company was founded, which re-surveyed the townsite and filed a map under the name “Town of El Pismo.” It is from this second townsite that most of today’s property titles derive.

Large amounts of farm produce and bituminous rock from Price Canyon continued to be shipped from the wharf. In 1893, a group of investors led by Mr. Jordan bought the wharf and rebuilt it as a place to ship bituminous rock from their quarry. The rebuilt wharf boasted a longer reach out into the ocean to a point of 19 feet of water at low tide. Rails were laid on the wharf to accommodate flatcars to haul shipments along its length.

In 1897, the wharf was washed away in a bad storm. The collapse came at 3 a.m. on February 2. The wharf, one freight car, and 1.2 million pounds of bitumen were lost. The wharf had been run by the Pismo Lumber Company for the previous four years, and owned by the Jordan Bituminous Rock and Paving Company.

The Jordan interests sustained a loss of $15,000, and in April 1897, sold the remnants of the wharf, bituminous rock mines and the lumber company to the Salinas Valley Lumber Company. Pismo Beach’s competition to Port San Luis had come to an end.

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