Re: Plans for the New James River Fishing Pier: An Update and a Question
Jane, I totally agree with you regarding the width of the proposed new pier--and for the reason of your informed reasons. There was a time that NN had pride in every thing they did and would not have given a thought to replacing that pier with a shorter and narrower one!! But that was then--in the days of doing the job right!
Plans for the New James River Fishing Pier:
An Update and a Question
By A. Jane Chambers
The opening sentence in Theresa Clift’s Daily Press(DP) article “Rebuilt pier to keep most of its length” is optimistic: “The reconstructed James River Fishing Pier will likely maintain a length close to its original 3,000 feet, instead of being shortened to 1,250 feet, as previously planned” (7/29/14, p. 5). This sounds like good news for those accustomed to fishing from the old pier. However, the wording “most,” “likely” and “close to” is cautious, indicating possibility rather than certainty, and after doing a little more research on this project of the new pier, I wonder if it will really be an improvement on the old one.
A view of the old pier in May 2007, looking toward the Crab Shack Restaurant and Huntington Park Beach. Daily Press photo by Dave Bowman.
THE PIER’S LENGTH
Reporter Clift states that extending the pier’s length will be possible because “City leaders budgeted $4.4 million for demolition of the pier and construction of its replacement, but the lowest bid [from Crofton Construction Services of Portsmouth] came in much lower than expected, at $2.3 million,” making “an extra $2 million …available to extend the pier.” However, if for some reason the Crofton bid cannot be accepted, Director of Engineering Everett Skipper is quoted as saying the job will go to “the second lowest bidder, W.F. Magan Corp. of Portsmouth,” and will cost $3.2 million,” in which case “the pier would still be extended beyond 1,250 feet, but not as far” as if Crofton does the work (“Rebuilt Pier”).
The length of the new pier is not definitely fixed. “Most of its [original] length” (2,994 feet) actually means, in the words of City Manager Jim Bourey, “2,250 to 3,000 feet.” All that Crofton (or Magan) has to build is what is spelled out in the City’s “Invitation for Bids,” sent out June 13,2014. The wording under the heading “Demolition and Replacement of the James River Fishing Pier” reads: “The total length of the proposed new pier is 1,252-feet.” The DP article states that any extension beyond that will be “a project the city will bid out separately in the spring,” a “second phase of the project … built from September 2015 to July 2016.” (“Rebuilt”).
Will the boast at the bottom of this old James River Pier sign be valid for the new pier? 1982 Daily Press Archives photo.
Here is the part of the document upon which the bidding was based:
SCOPE OF WORK:
Involves demolition of the existing 25-foot wide by 2,994-foot long James River Fishing Pier and construction of a new 24-foot wide by 64-foot long open pile supported platform extending to a 12-foot wide by 1,188-foot long open pile supported pier. The total length of the proposed new pier is 1,252-feet. The new pier will be constructed of prestressed concrete piles, precast concrete pile caps, and prestressed concrete deck panels. Associated improvements include a 30-foot long gangway, 10-foot by 40-foot floating dock, railing, and site lighting.
Phase 1 of the project will be the work described in the document above, with “the first 900 feet scheduled to open to the public by May 1,”and the total “1,250 feet open by Aug. 1, 2015.” Phase 2, “to extend the pier” beyond that length, “will be bid in May, and built from September 2015 to July 2016” (“Rebuilt”).
THE PIER’S WIDTH:
The “Bid” document specifies a “24-foot wide by 64-foot long” platform—no doubt for the ticket booth and perhaps a bait shop, plus the public restrooms. Beyond that point, it states that the fishing pier is to be only half as wide (“12-foot”) as the original. This change is not only significant, but perhaps ill-advised. After spending some time researching widths of other fishing piers in this area, and also thinking back to the decades in which I used to do salt water pier fishing myself on the Peninsula and elsewhere, I believe limiting the width of this new fishing pier to 12 feet is not a good idea, for practical reasons.
The average pier on as large a body of water as the James is at this point in Newport News is at least 16 feet but more often 20 feet wide. Just a few examples: Gulf State Park Pier (Ala), the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico, at 1,540 feet, is 20 feet wide. In our area, Lynnhaven Pier, 1,480 feet long, is 20 feet wide. Ocean View Pier, 1,690 feet long, is 16 feet wide, and Buckroe Beach Pier, only 706 feet long, is 16 feet wide, plus a T-head of 70 feet x 29 feet. I could find no public fishing pier of any size that was as narrow as 12 feet—and for good reasons.
People who pier fish usually bring with them not only fishing gear (including long rods), but also items such as ice chests of various sizes, chairs (if the pier has no benches), and sometimes weather gear including umbrellas. And they often come in groups—families with children, or adults in groups. When casting, they throw back their rods (6-8 feet long, or longer) with baited hooks. When pulling in catches, they sometimes move back from the railing and sling the fish up in the air. Woe to anyone too close behind them! A pier needs room enough for people fishing on both sides not to collide with each other or slap each other with dangerous hooks or wiggling fish. The pier also needs room enough for groups and individuals to walk up and down the middle. A long pier should also have several cleaning stations and, if possible, more restrooms than just several at the entrance. For these reasons, I feel the City should reconsider its decision about the planned width of the new pier.
What is YOUR opinion of the City’s plans for the new pier?
Published August 15, 2014
FEEDBACK on the James River Bridge article
From Barbara R. Jacobs
Jane, You did a terrific job on the James River Bridge history. I am impressed with the amount of research that this must have taken.
I also enjoyed Kenneth Smith's description of his trip to Alaska. The pictures for both articles were very enlightening and helpful to me, since I will probably never travel to either of these places.
November, 2011 photo of the draw lift at sunset, courtesy of photographer John Hughes, one of our CNC First Decaders.
Building the New James River Bridge:
A Photo History
By A. Jane Chambers
This past March, we published two articles on the old James River Bridge. The first, That Old James River Bridge: Facts and Photos (3/21/14) was about the early history of the first JRB. The second (3/28/14), Farewell, Final Half Mile Plus of the Old JRB, was initiated by a Daily Press article about the decision of the City of Newport News to close, then demolish the James River Fishing Pier (the last piece of the old JRB), and ultimately replace it with a pier about half its length. Both articles are still on this website, under the tab Memorable Places (left margin of HOME). This current article is about the building of the present 4-lane bridge, during which time the old and new bridges shared the task of carrying vehicular traffic, and the demolition of the old bridge.
DP photo, Bea Kopp. All Daily Press (DP) photos in this article are from Replacing the old James River Bridge - dailypress.com
DP photo, Jim Livingood.
DP photo, Jim Livingood.
Building the new bridge, and simultaneously removing the old one, actually took an entiredecade. The work took place in stages between 1972 or 73 and was not fully completed until the old lift span was destroyed and removed, in the summer of 1983. Some sources (Wikipedia & others) incorrectly give the construction dates as 1975-82, because work actually began well before 1975, as shown in the above Daily Press (DP) Archive photos (L-R). The first picture, taken August of 1973, shows the first pre-cast deck on the Newport News end being placed onto its capped pilings. The center photo, an August, 1974 aerial view from the Isle of Wight end, shows work well underway on the first 2-lane causeway. The third photo, a 1975 aerial view from the Newport News end, shows the new causeway built out as far as the draw lift, where there is a detour to the right onto the old draw span.
DP Archives photo, photographer not identified.
Both of these photos on the left were taken looking toward Newport News, as shown by the placement of the VEPCO towers. The top photo, from 1975, shows the concrete detour almost completed at the Newport News end of the bridge. Notice the railing, which identifies it as what would later be the southbound lanes. The northbound lanes would have no railing. The bottom photo, an aerial view from 1976, shows the growing first two-lane causeway approaching the lift span area from each shore, and the two detours near the lift. I laughed out loud the first time I saw that “Detour at Draw Bridge” sign. My sometimes too vivid imagination made me visualize a detour into the water.
DP photo, Jim Livingood.
The top right photo is an excellent close up of a deck section of the old bridge during removal of the old JRB section by section. The view here is from the Isle of Wight end. The second photo, another aerial view, again looking toward Newport News, shows the first new lift tower next to the old lift. This entire project of building the new four-lane bridge cost $75 million, but considering how much time it took (a decade) and how much work it entailed (including complete removal of the old bridge), I believe Virginia’s taxpayers got a bargain. Furthermore, there were NO TOLLS to pay on this new bridge. However, some of our state lawmakers are now thinking about returning bridge and bridge-tunnel tolls once again to our Tidewater area.
DP photo, Buddy Norris.
DP photo, Jim Livingood.
The next four Daily Press photos were all taken on August 7, 1979—the day the new lift span was moved into place, east of the old lift. The first two pictures (below) show the new lift span being maneuvered into place by workers on the bridge and a huge crane above it. The view is toward the Isle of Wight shore. The worker in the second photo was apparently standing on top of the lift tower near Newport News. So too, apparently, was photographer Joe Fudge. The third and fourth photos below those are aerial shots by Buddy Norris, who, we assume, was in a helicopter or small plane.
DP photo, Herb Barnes.
DP photo, Joe Fudge.
DP photo, Buddy Norris.
DP photo, Buddy Norris.
On June 3, 1980, the new lift span opened with a parade of old cars crossing from Newport News (photo right). No doubt this event recalled for some the 1928 opening of the original bridge, which was quite a grand affair not only locally but nationally, with a crowd of 30,000, a two-mile long parade and U.S. President Calvin Coolidge pressing a button in the White House that opened the lift for the first time (see That Old JRB article here in the tab Memorable Places). Once the lift for our new JRB was operating, work continued with the second causeway, completed in 1982. But as this May, 1983 color photo shows, the old span and lift were still there. Their end was quite near, however.
DP photo, Ransy Morr
May, 1983 photo by Scott Kozel, in Roads to the Future.
Times-Herald, 6/30/83. Photographer not identified.
These two photos show workers preparing explosives used to demolish, first, the lift span of the old bridge, and then the remaining eight approach spans (four on each side of it). The top left photo, from the June 30, 1983 first page of the Newport News evening paper, the Times-Herald, had this caption: “Anderson Excavating and Wrecking Co. workers prepare to place explosives on the trestle of the old James River Bridge.” The second photo had a less specific caption and no date: “A workman puts dynamite into place for the demolition of the remaining sections of the old bridge.” Demolition took place at two different times: June 30th (the lift span) and July 22nd (the eight additional spans).
DP photo. Photographer not identified.
My friend Janie Wolf and her children, Kim and Andy, went to Hilton Elementary School to watch the old lift span explode. We were among several hundred people gathered on the riverbank behind the school with lawn chairs, blankets, ice chests and cameras. Scheduled for early morning, the demolition had been delayed, but the rumor was that it would happen that afternoon, so we went to the school and prepared to be both saddened and awed. Every now and then a small plane circled the bridge, creating some excitement. Then it would leave. We waited and waited as dusk fell, then darkness. Still, nothing happened. Finally, like most of the other people, we gave up and left. Luckily, the photographers and reporters on boats near the bridge stayed on to capture the experience for us (see photo caption).
This photo, by Buddy Norris, was published on the front page of the DP on July 1, 1983. The caption read: “Explosives shatter the lift span of the old James River Bridge, right at 9:08 p.m., after more than 11 hours of delay.”
DP photo. Ransy Morr.
DP photo. Ransy Morr.
As the above photo of the lift explosion shows, the other spans were not demolished at that time. The eight of them (four on each side of the lift) were taken down almost three weeks later, on July 22, 1983—two at a time. Here are two photos capturing that daytime event.
In closing, I hope you will enjoy another beautiful NEW JRB photo by CNC First Decader John Hughes.
Published July 18, 2014
Farewell, Final Half Mile Plus
of the Old JRB
by A. Jane Chambers
Daily Press photo of the closed pier, made by Joe Fudge on March 19, 2014.
The day before last Friday’s publication of “That Old James River Bridge” on this website, the last section of the old bridge, which has been a popular fishing pier since 1976, was the big front page story in the Daily Press. The thick black headline “FISHING PIER WILL BE RAZED, REBORN” was followed by this subheading: “City deems structure unsafe, plans new, shorter replacement” (Thurs., March 20, 2014). The article gave fairly convincing reasons for the razing, but less convincing reasons for the replacement pier’s being not merely “shorter” than the current pier, but significantly shorter: only 1,200 feet long, as opposed to the present pier’s 2,992 feet: one-half mile plus 352 feet. The new pier will hardly be a “rebirth,” for it will be just a little more than one-third the length of what’s famously known as “one of the longest recreational fishing piers on the East Coast.” The project of razing the pier and constructing a new one will cost $4.7 million and will not be completed before spring of 2015 (p. 1).
Daily Press archive photo of the pier from April, 2010, showing part of Huntington Beach.
Daily Press archive photo of May 2007, by Dave Bowman, showing part of the beach and the back of the Crab Shack restaurant.
The Daily Press (DP) article stated that “The pier closed in late December  after an outside inspector brought in by the city deemed it unsafe” and quoted Newport News City Manager Jim Bourey: “Over the last few years the city has really been holding it together with something akin to baling wire to keep it in sound enough condition for people to be on [it]” (pp. 1 & 4). The article also included this picture (right) of heavy rust on one of the supporting steel beams.
March 19, 2014 DP photo by Joe Fudge showing heavy rust on a support beam.
Although many of us will be sad to see this last section of that old JRB demolished, we must accept the reality that it dates from 1928 and that steel and concrete, like us, have limited life spans.
Both the pier (entrance left) and the Crab Shack (right) are owned by the City of Newport News. Daily Press photo by Joe Fudge, taken March 19, 2014.
The reason “50,000 to 60,000” people per year have enjoyed this fishing pier since it opened, in 1976, is that area businessman Jim Wharton convinced state officials “to leave a section” of the old bridge to serve as a pier while razing the rest of it (DP, p. 1). His son, Bobby Wharton, currently runs the James River Fishing Pier, Inc., “which has a long-term lease on the pier and the restaurant next door,” the Crab Shack. Bobby Wharton “has asked to rework the company’s lease as a result of the reduced receipts associated with the pier,” according to Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department Director Michael Poplawski (p. 4). Wharton will lose a significant amount of revenue during the 12 months or more of this project.
A 1981 photo from the DP archive showing people at the pier’s entrance with fishing gear. The pier has been consistently popular since its opening almost 4 decades ago.
Another 1981 photo from the DP archive. This one shows the old (R) and new (L) bridge lifts side by side and close to the end of the long pier.
It is evident from the DP article that the fishing pier and restaurant have been quite profitable for the city, which “receives $25,000 per year in rent” for them together, plus “10 percent of sales after the business tallies $150,000 in receipts.” The article quotes PRT Director Poplawski as declaring that “the city has received between $2 million and $2.5 million annually from the concession” operated by Wharton (p. 4). If the above figures are accurate, then the city has profited greatly indeed from the pier and Crab Shack over the last 38 years.
Newport News plans to spend $2 million to demolish the old pier and $2.7 million to build the new one, which will be a little over one-third the length of the old one. As the article states, “questions remain whether the new pier will be as attractive to the fishing community as its predecessor, which extended almost to the shipping channel and gave fishermen a greater chance at striped bass and flounder in addition to species such as croaker, spot, red drum and speckled trout” (p. 4).
The black drum caught near the end of the almost 3,000-ft. J.R. pier in this 2012 DP photo weighed over 75 lbs. Such a catch would be highly unlikely from a pier as short as 1,200 feet.
This undated photo from the DP archive gives us a rare view of Red’s Pier as seen from the J.R. Fishing Pier.
When the City Council discussed the pier project in February, some members “raised concerns” that after spending $4.7 million, the city “will be left with a new product that’s half the length of which fisherman have become accustomed.” One such concerned member, Pat Woodbury, said of the pier, “It’s really a community asset and it’s going to be very shocking to a lot of people who use it frequently” to have a considerably shorter pier. City officials indicated there could be “a little wiggle room on the length … if contractor bids come in below their expectations or if the design team opts to build a skinnier pier than what’s been talked about.”
A 1982 DP photo of the fishing pier sign with the boast at the bottom which cannot be made if the new pier is built as now planned.
Even if made a few hundred feet longer, the new James River Fishing Pier, “a concrete structure…on concrete pilings” (p. 4), will be at best half the length of the present pier. Given the amount of revenue the city has collected since 1976 from a pier that cost the city nothing to build, one has to wonder why Newport News will not spend another million or two to make this second pier as long as the first, so that it will continue to draw not only local fishermen, but visitors from throughout Virginia and other states. Why doesn’t the city build another fishing pier famously known as “the longest fishing pier on the East Coast”?
The J.R. Pier has been popular with several generations of children. Undated DP archive photo.
The annual Children’s Fishing Clinic held on the J.R. Pier has been very popular for years. July 2007 DP photo by Mandy McConahan.
Published March 28, 2014
That OldJames RiverBridge:
Facts and Photos
by A. Jane Chambers
It was June of 1963, and I was traveling to Newport News for the first time, to be interviewed for a position in CNC’s English Department. I was glad I had the whole seat to myself on that Trailways bus, allowing me to shift positions often during the very long ride from Charlotte. Dozing, my head against the window, I was jolted awake by a bump, followed by a higher-pitched humming of the bus’s wheels. Sitting upright, I looked out at a tremendous expanse of choppy water dotted by whitecaps, and between that seeming sea and the bus, I saw nothingelse—no railing to protect us from the water. I sat quietly terrified, telling myself there had to be a railing, yet fearing that at any moment the bus would plunge into the waves.
I knew there would be a wide river and a bridge to cross on this trip, but I was totally unprepared for this initial experience. I had never crossed a river so very wide, on a bridge so very long, with railing so very low that I could not see it from my seat on that Trailways bus.
This Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce photo (c. 1930) is from p. 119 of Dr. Jane Carter Webb’s book, Newport News. Only two cars are visible on this stretch of the bridge (look far right), an early indication that the high toll ($1.20 one way; equivalent to $16.16 in 2014) would discourage traffic.
This 1937 VaDOT aerial view includes Warwick Blvd., the railroad track, and homes and businesses near, but not in, Hilton Village.
The original James River Bridge (JRB) opened on Nov. 17, 1928. As the longest bridge over water in the world then, its opening was accompanied with much excitement and fanfare, as described this past fall (Nov. 18, 2013) in a Daily Press article on the 85th anniversary of that opening. Journalist Mark St. John Erickson wrote: Some 30,000 people turned out to witness its formal dedication on Nov. 17, which included a 2-mile-long "monster parade," a pyrotechnic recreation of the Civil War battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac and an electrical connection with the White House office of President Calvin Coolidge, who pressed the button that activated the bridge's gigantic lift span and lowered it into position over the 2-lane highway (“When it opened on Nov. 17, 1928, the James River Bridge ranked as the world's longest”).
As this undated VaDOT photo shows, traffic on the high toll bridge was so light in the early years that these ladies could pause in their trip to pose on the JRB for this picture.
This 1928 photo was reproduced on the editorial page of the weekly Smithfield Times on July 24, 1913. At first I thought the man standing on the bridge was a policeman; now I think he was instead (notice his hat) the chauffer of the man in the first car and was gesturing to the driver of the second car to go around (pass) the first car. Notice that no other cars are visible in this picture.
Newport News Mayor Philip W. Hiden’s daughter, representing the Commonwealth of Virginia, cut the ribbon opening the span with an immense pair of scissors. Standing by her side in blue frocks and golden hats was an escort of 23 "fair maidens," each one representing a Hampton Roads city, town or county. When the parade started, a "rude cart, drawn by a stolid ox" led a lengthy collection of period vehicles that underscored the bridge's importance as an unprecedented connection with the future. It was accompanied by a line of marching military units measuring more than a mile in length, while a long series of nearly 100 lavish historical floats entertained the crowd with such prize-winning entries as the "Capture of Blackbeard," which was acted out enthusiastically by the members of the Women's Club of Hampton. Nine airplanes and two blimps from Langley Field added to the martial pageantry of the affair, as did the presence of the USS Marblehead and numerous other Navy vessels (“When it opened”).
The JRB was privately funded and operated by the James River Bridge Corporation, which was chartered by Virginia’s General Assembly to build a system of bridges across the James River, Chuckatuck Creek, and the NansemondRiver (Wikipedia). Two prominent Newport News citizens were major investors: Mayor Philip W. Hiden and Daily Press Editor W. Scott Copeland, who joined forces “to convince the nationally known Boston investment firm of Paine Webber to arrange bond financing for the innovative bridge” (“When it opened”). The total cost for the 3 bridges was about $7 million; the cost of the JRB alone was $5.2 million of that. The bridge was, by today’s standards, quite narrow: only 20 feet wide from curb to curb. The main lift span was 300 feet long (Wikipedia). The lift clearance was 147 feet. The bridge was almost 5 miles long—specifically, 4.8 miles. I remember clocking it often when I drove across it during my early decades in Newport News.
This is a 1929 VaDOT photo of the JRB toll house on the Hampton Roads side. Two vehicles are visible on the bridge, seemingly one leaving from and one coming to Newport News.
This VaDOT photo shows a bus headed for Norfolk approaching the toll house on the Isle of Wight end of the JRB. The toll collector is standing outside, looking at the bus. No other vehicles are visible here. Being a toll collector in those earliest years of the bridge must have been rather boring.
As the above photos demonstrate, after the JRB’s 1928 opening, the projected traffic volumes failed to materialize because the tolls were very expensive ($1.20 each way was $16.16 in today’s dollars) and, 11 months after the opening, the stock market crashed, plunging the USA into the Great Depression. “The bonds issued to pay for the span,” as Erickson noted in his 2013 article, “lost most of their value” (“When it opened”). The James River Bridge Corporation went bankrupt.
This Daily Press photo shows the toll gates on the Newport News side in 1953. In 1955 this toll plaza was removed and tolls for both north and south traffic were collected at the south end of the bridge (Isle of Wight County).
This 1937 postcard, courtesy of Dave Spriggs, shows an old hotel, including some cabins, which used to operate near the south end of the JRB.
Wikipedia sums up the rest: It was bought by bondholders, headed by a local businessman from Smithfield. The new owners raised tolls, proving unpopular with local residents. Chapter 399 of the Acts of Virginia of 1940 authorized the SHC [State Highway Commission] to acquire the James RiverBridge System, consisting of the three bridges and approach roads. The SHC bought the system from the corporation for $5.6 million on September 30, 1949. However, in 1955, the state doubled tolls to $1.80 round trip for cars and $4.00 or more for trucks in order to pay for repairs, new toll booths, and a new punched card system compatible with the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.
I remember in the 1960s and early 1970s paying that 90-cents toll each way when I drove to North Carolina. The state finally removed the tolls after paying off the remaining bonds. By that time, of course, there was so much traffic on the old bridge that it had to be replaced by the new 4-lane bridge. But that’s another story, which I’ll tell at another time. Meanwhile, if you have a personal adventure (or misadventure) with that old JRB to share with us, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published March 21, 2014
Republished November 24, 2017
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