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A pier is a raised structure, including bridge and building supports and walkways, typically supported by widely spread piles or pillars. The lighter structure of a pier allows tides and currents to flow almost unhindered, whereas the more solid foundations of a quay or the closely spaced piles of a wharf can act as a breakwater, and are consequently more liable to silting. Piers can range in size and complexity from a simple lightweight wooden structure to major structures extended over 1600 metres. In American English, pier may be synonymous with dock.
Piers have been built for several purposes, and because these different purposes have distinct regional variances, the term pier tends to have different nuances of meaning in different parts of the world. Thus in North America and Australia, where many ports were, until recently, built on the multiple pier model, the term tends to imply a current or former cargo-handling facility. In Europe in contrast, where ports more often use basins and river-side quays than piers, the term is principally associated with the image of a Victorian cast iron pleasure pier. However, the earliest piers pre-date the Victorian age.
Piers can be categorized into different groupings according to the principal purpose.1 However there is considerable overlap between these categories. For example, pleasure piers often also allow for the docking of pleasure steamers and other similar craft, whilst working piers have often been converted to leisure use after being rendered obsolete by advanced developments in cargo-handling technology. Many piers are floating piers, to ensure that the piers raise and lower with the tide along with the boats tied to them. This prevents a situation where lines become overly taught or loose by rising or lowering tides. An overly taught or loose tie-line can damage boats by pulling them out of the water or allowing them so much leeway that they bang forcefully against the sides of the pier.
Working piers were built for the handling of passengers and cargo onto and off ships or (as at Wigan Pier) canal boats. Working piers themselves fall into two different groups. Longer individual piers are often found at ports with large tidal ranges, with the pier stretching far enough off shore to reach deep water at low tide. Such piers provided an economical alternative to impounded docks where cargo volumes were low, or where specialist bulk cargo was handled, such as at coal piers. The other form of working pier, often called the finger pier, was built at ports with smaller tidal ranges. Here the principal advantage was to give a greater available quay length for ships to berth against compared to a linear littoral quayside, and such piers are usually much shorter. Typically each pier would carry a single transit shed the length of the pier, with ships berthing bow or stern in to the shore. Some major ports consisted of large numbers of such piers lining the foreshore, classic examples being the Hudson River frontage of New York, or the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
The advent of container shipping, with its need for large container handling spaces adjacent to the shipping berths, has made working piers obsolete for the handling of general cargo, although some still survive for the handling of passenger ships or bulk cargos. One example, is in use in Progreso, Yucatán, where a pier extends more than 4 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, making it the longest pier in the world. The Progreso Pier supplies much of the peninsula with transportation for the fishing and cargo industries and serves as a port for large cruise ships in the area. Many other working piers have been demolished, or remain derelict, but some have been recycled as pleasure piers. The best known example of this is Pier 39 in San Francisco.
Pleasure piers were first built in England, during the 19th century. The earliest structures were Ryde Pier, built in 1813/4, Leith Trinity Chain Pier, built in 1821, and Brighton Chain Pier, built in 1823. Only the oldest of these piers still remains. At that time the introduction of the railways for the first time permitted mass tourism to dedicated seaside resorts. However, the large tidal ranges at many such resorts meant that for much of the day, the sea was not visible from dry land. The pleasure pier was the resorts' answer, permitting holiday makers to promenade over and alongside the sea at all times. The longest Pleasure pier in the world is at Southend-on-sea, Essex, and extends 2,158 metres (1.34 mi) into the Thames estuary. With a length of 2,745 feet (836.68 m), the longest pier on the West Coast of the United States is the Santa Cruz Wharf.2
Pleasure piers often include other amusements and theatres as part of the attraction. Such a pier may be open air, closed, or partly open, partly closed. Sometimes a pier has two decks.
Early pleasure piers were of wooden construction, with iron structures being introduced with the construction in 1855 of Margate Jetty, in Margate, England. Margate was wrecked in storms in 1978 and was never repaired. The oldest iron pleasure pier still remaining is in Southport, England, and dates from 1860 - however the world's oldest iron pier3 dates from 1834 and is in Gravesend, Kent. Gravesham council have recently purchased and refurbished this passenger pier.
Many piers are built for the purpose of providing boatless anglers access to fishing grounds that are otherwise inaccessible. Many "Free Piers" are available in larger harbors which differ from private piers. Free Piers are often primarily used for fishing.
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See the List of piers article for details of piers in countries across the world.
The first recorded pier in England was Ryde Pier, opened in 1814 on the Isle of Wight, as a landing stage to allow ferries to and from the mainland to berth. It is still used for this purpose today. However it has had a leisure function in the past, with the pier head once containing a pavilion. There are still refreshment facilities today. The oldest cast iron pier in the world is Gravesend Town Pier, in Kent, which opened in 1834. However, it is not recognised by the National Piers Society as being a seaside pier.5
In their heyday, there were many pleasure piers across England and Wales. These were found in most fashionable seaside resorts during the Victorian era. There are still a significant number of piers of architectural merit still standing, although some have been lost. The most well known piers are perhapscitation needed the two at Brighton in East Sussex and the three at Blackpool in Lancashire. Two piers, Brighton's now derelict West Pier and Clevedon Pier, were Grade 1 listed: Brighton West lost its status after a series of fires and storms. The Birnbeck Pier in Weston-super-Mare is the only pier in the world that is linked to an island. The National Piers Society gives a figure of 55 surviving seaside piers in England and Wales.1
Scheveningen, the coastal resort town of The Hague, boasts the largest pier in the Netherlands, completed in 1961. A crane, built on top of the pier's panorama tower, provides the opportunity to make a 60-metre (200 ft) high bungee jump over the North Sea waves. The present pier is a successor of an earlier pier, which was completed in 1901 but in 1943 destroyed by the German occupation forces.
In Blankenberge a first pleasure pier was built in 1894. After its destruction in the World War I, a new pier was built in 1933. It remained till the present day, but was partially transformed and modernized in 1999–2004.
- "Piers". National Piers Society (2006). Retrieved February 24, 2012.
- "California Pier Statistics, Longest Piers". seecalifornia.com. Retrieved 2014-02-10.
- Gravesend Pier
- "XVII Aniversario de la Terminal Remota de Puerto Progreso". PuertosYucatán. October 6, 2006. Retrieved June 6, 2013.
- "The oldest surviving cast iron pier in the world". BBC. February 9, 2006. Retrieved March 26, 2006.
- Turner, K., (1999), Pier Railways and Tramways of the British Isles, The Oakwood Press, No. LP60, ISBN 0-85361-541-1.
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