Seal Beach Pier: A history of comebacks

Arial photograph of Seal Beach Pier in 1983 taken by Lt. Bill Stearns, Seal Beach Police Department.
Pictured above, the water line that was supposed to support fire suppression leaks as fire fighters battle the 2016 blaze on the Pier. Sun file photo

The end of the Seal Beach Pier is expected to open late Friday afternoon. The official grand opening is expected to take place in June. It turns out the Seal Beach Pier has a long history of surviving whatever comes. The following is a brief history of the pier based on interviews and the Sun’s archives.


“A tiny pier was apparently built during the first roll out of Bay City in 1904 –along with a pavilion,” according to Larry Strawther, author of “Seal Beach: A Brief History.” However, Strawther said the main pier was off 5th Street just north of Central. The homes on Fifth backed on to Alamitos Bay at the time, and the town’s main pier was on Alamitos Bay and handled regular ferry boats from Long Beach and Naples.” He says the pavilion burned down later that year and if the pier existed it was possibly damaged as well.


• “On 28 January 1906 it is announced a wharf 1200-500 feet will be built,” Strawther say. “Articles in March say the pier will be 1,500 feet, ‘the longest pleasure pier in Southern California.’ By April it was ‘the longest pier, save one.” By May the pier was ‘advancing 50 feet a day.’ It appears the pier was completed in July. The pier was then ‘super-charged’ when Guy E. Rush, a big-time real estate guy in the SoCal area, optioned the so far unsuccessful Bay City tract and renamed it Seal Beach and started that famous ‘Seal’ ad campaign in 1913.”


• The “Joy Zone” opens.

“They wanted to be open by Memorial Day weekend, 1916, but labor strikes by the roller coaster workers and demands by residents delayed things. The Joy Zone officially opened on July 1, 1916,” Strawther said.

“When the Joy Zone failed – thanks in part to World War I rationing (rubber and metal) and embargos, the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic, and then the advent of Prohibition, the Bayside Land Company let the pier crumble apart,” Strawther said.


• The pier falls apart. “It finally fell apart in 1935, and then was sold at auction when Security Pacific took over the entire Bayside Land Company inventory,” Strawther says.


• “The pier was razed, and rebuilt and re-opened around Memorial Day of 1939,” Strawther says.


• February: A storm destroys the pier and devastates Seal Beach.

• May 15: A fire damages the Seal Beach Pier and the Lifeguard tower. The cause was a conduit running under the pier, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.

Citizen fundraising to restore the pier begins.

• Late June: The City Council approves a budget with a deficit of about $1 million dollars, part of which is attributed to the expected cost of repairing the pier.

• October: City Manager Jerry Bankston announces that the city has hired Moffat & Nichols to plan pier repairs.


• Seal Beach Pier re-opens Jan. 27, 1985.


• “May 15, 1992- electrical fire, charred 50 feet of pier,” says Larry Strawther.

• February: John Charles Morrow, the contractor who rebuilt the pier restaurant after the storm of 1983, passes away.

• Mid-May: The pier and the lifeguard tower on the pier burn. According to the Seal Beach Journal article of May 21, the cause of the fire is a conduit that ran under the pier. Capt. Joe Kalmick, then a volunteer fire fighter, is the incident commander. City Manager Jerry Bankston estimates the cost of repairing the damage will be $60,000 to $100,000, not including repairs of utilities. The city’s insurance has a deductible of $100,000. (Figures have not been adjusted for inflation.)

• May to June: Bankston reports that the city has spent $30,000 to temporarily open the pier.

• Late June: Earthquakes cause minor damage to fire-damaged area of the pier.

• July: City Manager Bankston says city will repair pier in the fall. Bankston reports pier is structurally sound.

Bankston puts the cost of repairing earthquake damage to the pier at $7,000 to $9,000 if the fire and earthquake repair projects were done together.

Eighth grader Krista Dixon writes a paper on “Enjoying Ruby’s,” which is reprinted as a Letter to the Editor in the July 23 edition of the Journal.


• “May 21, 1994 – explosion at mid-pier, trapping over 100 people on far end of pier,” Larry Strawther said. “Originally thought electrical, but later thought to have stated after coal fragments from a grill dropped under the pier and ignited a gas line.”


• August: Pier was closed for repairs that were scheduled to continue until May 1996. Ruby’s and Seal Beach Sports fishing were closed for the duration. Ferries to oil islands suspended.


• October: Ruby’s 10-year lease with city of Seal Beach expires.

• November: In November, the City Council approves a month-to-month rental agreement with Ruby’s while the city negotiated a new lease. The agreement includes a 150 percent rent increase for the duration of the month-to-month arrangement.

• December: Following lengthy negotiations over the lease for the space on the pier, Ruby’s Diner notifies the city that they are vacating the Seal Beach Pier location as of Jan. 10, 2013. “We understand that the city has decided to put the lease for the Seal Beach Pier out for RFP (requests for proposals,” wrote Dough Cavanaugh, chairman and CEO of the Ruby Restaurant Group, in the Dec. 10 letter ending the relationship between Seal Beach and Ruby’s.

“At this point due to the RFP process, it appears that there may not be a desire to continue with a Ruby’s on the pier,” Cavanaugh wrote.


• Jan. 3, 2013: City announces Ruby’s Diner will be leaving Seal Beach.

• Jan. 6, 2013: Ruby’s Diner closes.

• February 2013: “Requirement 3” of the “request for proposals” for a new pier restaurant: the business must perform community service in addition to paying rent on the space. However, Assistant City Manager Sean Crumby says the community service project was a guideline, not a requirement. Community Development Director Jim Basham says the community service project is a requirement, “But it’s not a contract.”

• April 2013: Art Haack, who had been general manager of the Seal Beach Ruby’s Diner when it closed, proposes bringing back a Ruby’s franchise to the pier.


• January to April: Multiple business entities negotiate with city to replace Ruby’s with another restaurant.

• April: City Atatorney Quinn Barrow announces Monday night, April 29, that the City Council has directed him to negotiate a development agreement with Off The Hook, which is owned by the owners of the Original Fish Company. (The agreement, however, apparently fell through at a later point in time.)

• August: The pier suffers partial damage as a result of unusually high waves caused by Hurricane Marie off the coast of Mexico.


• October: City Council holds workshop to discuss options for the pier: make mandatory upgrades; tear down the former location of Ruby’s Diner and leave an open space; repair the pier to accommodate a one-story building; or ready it to accommodate a two-story building.


• Friday, May 20: A fire on the pier destroys a former bait shack and the building that once housed Ruby’s. The Orange County Fire Authority later determines that the fire was an electrical fire that originated in the long-closed former bait shack.


• August: several government agencies issue tentative approvals for the pier repair/improvement project: the Regional Water Quality Control Board issues a draft certification for the project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sends the city a provisional letter of permission. The Army will issue a permit after the city gets the coastal permit.

• October: Associate Engineer David Spitz told the City Council that the city has met the conditions for the California Coastal Commission to issue a permit to repair the Seal Beach Pier.


• June: City Council approves contract with John S. Meek Company, Inc., to make improvements to the pier. As of that time, there are no (longer) any plans for the city to put a restaurant at the end of the pier. The plans are to make the pier strong enough to support a restaurant building if the decision was ever made to put a restaurant there.

Construction work on the pier begins after the Labor Day weekend. The California Coastal Commission does not allow construction in the coastal zone between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

• September: Pier construction begins.