The Hotel Balboa, originally the San Diego College of Letters, would eventually become the San Diego Army-Navy Academy (the West Point of the West). It would then transform itself into Brown Military Academy before moving north to Carlsbad in 1958. Today the site is the home of the Pacific Plaza Shopping Center.
The idea for a pier in Pacific Beach originated with Earl Taylor, a local realtor of the mid-1920s who was trying to sell property in the then sparsely populated (700 resident) area. Although land was fairly inexpensive (private lots cost $400, and commercial lots cost $800-$1,000), demand had slowed after the steam railroad discontinued service to downtown San Diego in 1917. Although the train no longer ran down Grand Avenue to the beach, Highway 1 continued to travel west on Garnet and then north on Cass. What businesses there were lined the route and gave the local area its economic focus. But it wasn’t enough. Something was needed to attract more people to the area. Taylor felt he needed a gimmick, something like the amusement piers that had attracted land buyers to Venice and Ocean Park near Los Angeles. He approached Earnest Pickering, owner of the Pickering Pier in Ocean Park, and soon had a partner, both financially and with insights regarding a pier.
In September of 1925 the local Pacific Beach Banner reported that Pickering and an associate, Neil Nettleship, were in town discussing the construction of the pier. The Pickering Pleasure Pier appeared to be on its way, construction started, and additional headlines soon proclaimed, “Pacific Beach: Home of the Million Dollar Pier.” The headlines were a little premature because Pickering soon experienced money troubles of his own and had to back out of the project. Construction stopped!
At this point Nettleship (who had also built a small pier at the turn of the century at the foot of La Mont Street in Mission Bay) stepped in and, together with the Tye Construction Company, gained ownership of the pier. The name was changed to the Crystal Pier and Nettleship began to issue stock in the Crystal Pier Amusement Company.
Crystal Pier — 1925
On April 18, 1926, the pier was dedicated; festivities included airplane stunt flying, a surfboard-riding exhibition, and nail-driving competitions for men and women. The crushing of a huge bottle by one of the pier’s pile drivers marked the official christening.
Although dedicated, the pier and its amusements would not be finished until the following summer (amid fierce competition between the Crystal Pier and the amusement park at Mission Beach). On the July 4 weekend of 1927, the 950-foot-long pier opened as the “Crystal Pleasure Pier Ballroom and Joy Zone,” an opening heralded in both the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. The main attraction was the towered ballroom that sat out at the end of the pier. The ballroom was built in a sort of 1920s Aztec-like architecture and featured a cork-cushioned dance floor and a crystal ball, high up above the dance floor, which gave the pier its name. Other attractions included an amusement midway with the ever-present arcade.
Crystal Pier — 1927
The attractions were short lived. From day one the pier had rocked in an unsettling manner. Visitors to the ballroom complained of queasiness from the rocking and the swaying lights (which prompted Nettleship to run piano wire through lights and wall fixtures). Some questioned the safety of the pier, some merely resented feeling seasick while out on a pier (which seems fairly reasonable). The initial problem was insufficient bracing which caused the pier to sway in all but the mildest surf. Worse, in the long run, was the fact that marine borers were rapidly destroying the improperly treated, non-creosoted pilings. The pier and ballroom were condemned (although the ballroom was dismantled and reconstructed on Mission Beach next to the amusement park) and the pier was shut down.
Nettleship sued the Pan Pacific Construction Company, won a Superior Court decision, saw it reversed by an appeals court, but then saw his case upheld by the State Supreme Court. Other court decisions ruled that the pier beyond the high tide line was public property (so the owners at the beachfront end would need to lease the ocean end of the pier). But Nettleship’s money was gone and the U.S. National Bank foreclosed on the pier. Nettleship was now out of the picture. Eventually the bank spent $10,000 replacing pilings, built a 500-foot extension and remodeled the pier.
Crystal Pier — 1935
On April 19, 1936, almost exactly ten years after the initial dedication, a new and remodeled pier, complete with ten motel cottages and a soda fountain, opened for vacationers. Souvenir postcards from the day mentioned free pier fishing and tackle for rent —for the princely sum of 25 cents. The cards also mentioned a daily and monthly prize for the big fish. The new pier and motel quickly became a favorite for those coming to the beach to escape the heat of the inland areas.
Two years later a deal was nearly struck to lease the entire pier to the city. The Pacific Beach Chamber of Commerce supported the plan and even wanted the pier lengthened and facilities added so that sportfishing boats could use the pier but that lease deal was never signed. Instead, the pier was sold in 1948 and then again in 1949.
California Department of Fish and Game photo from 1949
In January of 1953 new problems arose. Two derelict fishing vessels being towed by a barge broke loose during a heavy storm and slammed into the north side of the pier. The vessels snapped ten pilings and dumped a cottage into the Pacific. Luckily the cottage was unoccupied and the eleven visitors who were staying in other cottages at the time had decided to vacate their dwellings during the 7’5″ tidal conditions. The pier was repaired, then, in December of 1953 the city announced a revised lease with the owners of the pier; a 25-year lease which would be in effect until 1978.
For much of the fifties the pier seemed to be in a slow decline. Then, in 1961 the pier was refurbished and given its now familiar ocean-blue and sky-white colors. Cottages were also restored and redecorated.
A Kid’s Fishing Derby was held at the pier in 1967
The pier in 1977
The infamous pier-damaging storms of 1983 didn’t spare the pier. Fifteen-foot waves destroyed the outer 260-foot section of the pier and questions began anew.
A shortened pier
Who would fix the pier, the city or the operators of the private hotel? And would a remodeled pier retain the front entryway of the pier that had become a Pacific Beach landmark? After considerable debate, and several different proposals by diverse groups, it was agreed that the pier would be renovated, lengthened, and retain its basic appearance—with both sides contributing money. Eventually a new lease was signed, six more cottages were added (somewhat decreasing available space for those who liked to fish the surf area), and all but the last 20-foot length of the pier was restored and “uplifted” (so that it would hopefully be better to withstand a new storm).
The pier was once again safe and open for angling. As mentioned, Crystal is still the only pier along the Pacific coast which has rooms over the water, thus allowing an angler the chance to virtually fish from his or her front porch (or, in this case, patio area).
Christmas at the pier — 2010
Crystal Pier Facts
Hours: Vary by season; generally 7 (or 8) AM. to 7 PM. (or sunset) for visitors in the summer; 8 AM. to 6 PM. in the winter. 24 hours a day for those staying in the pier motel.
Facilities: One cleaning station, some benches, and some night lighting (for those who stay at the pier’s cabins). Bait and tackle is available at the friendly Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle on the pier (generally frozen anchovies and squid).
Parking can be a problem! Metered parking is available on the side street at the foot of the pier if you can find it. This is a popular area for beach go’ers and surfers and they just don’t seem to realize they should leave some parking spaces for the humble pier rats. Arriving any time after the early morning hours simply means you must look around for a space. Do not park in parking lots that have posted warnings; they mean it and will not hesitate to have your car towed away. Kono’s, located near the entrance of the pier, serves up great breakfasts and lunches for a very reasonable price and will provide takeout if you’re on the pier.
Handicapped Facilities: None. The surface is wood planking with a railing 40 inches high.
Location: 32.79583 N. Latitude, 117.2575 W. Longitude
How To Get There: Take I-5 to Garnet Ave., then take Garnet to the foot of the pier.
Management: City of San Diego and Crystal Pier Motel.