Pier-ing into the past

Historic White Rock images celebrate a waterfront icon

White Rock’s pier has always been as much an idea as an entity, says city archivist Hugh Ellenwood, of White Rock Museum and Archives.

And in the upcoming photographic exhibit at the city’s Landmark Pop Uptown Gallery at Central Plaza, Our Pier: A Retrospective he traces the pier’s history, both in concept and reality, from its beginnings in 1890 up to the disastrous windstorm of Dec. 20 that led to the washing away of a middle section of the structure.

The show officially debuts Valentine’s Day (Thursday, Feb. 14), with a free 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. gala opening at the gallery, and runs until March 23.

It’s a valentine of sorts to the waterfront icon from the White Rock Youth Ambassador program – members of the keenly community-aware 2018-19 team were busy organizing an online fundraising effort to help refurbish the pier almost as soon as word spread that it had been seriously damaged.

That initial effort has evolved into the current Pier Amenity Restoration Fund campaign, in which reproductions of historic photos and paintings in the display will be sold to help pay for such items as arches, lighting and benches to enhance a rebuilt pier.

Teaming with the ambassadors are several city departments, including recreation and culture, and communications and government relations, along with the museum. All were enlisted for the project by cultural development manager Elizabeth Keurvorst.

Keurvorst said the exhibit will also feature artists’ interpretations of the pier over the years to accompany the historic photos.

“When we put out a call for sponsors, we weren’t expecting that artists would donate work to the project – but some have,” she said, adding that the exhibit will feature paintings by Elizabeth Hollick, Lisa Westendorf, Mark Lesage and Sandra Tomchuk along with others selected from the city’s collection of work by late painter Voja Morosan.

In addition to pop-up space sponsor Landmark, the show has also received support from Telus, which will match sales up to $2,000 and donations up to $10,000 for the run of the show, and also Morgan Creek Dental Clinic.

“And Ric Wallace is donating 10 per cent of sales of his postcards of the storm and the damage to the pier,” Keurvorst added.

What Ellenwood and the museum have brought to the project is a selection of evocative photographs covering the decades of the pier, along with captions that concisely convey the historical context of each image.

While the historic photographs themselves are easily located in the archives’ comprehensive database, Ellenwood said he always enjoys the process of selection and storytelling background that goes along with an exhibit of this kind.

He said that even though earlier incarnations of the pier survive only as relics of piles and decking salvaged by White Rock residents – and frequently turned into home decor over the years – the idea of the pier has become unshakable in the community’s sense of self.

“It’s the idea of the pier that lasts,” he said. “I’m reminded of the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts. After his lengthy voyage, during which he’d had to replace everything on the Argo, plank by plank and spar by spar, he was left with the question: was it the same ship?”

It remained, Ellenwood said, because the concept was essentially unchanged – and he thinks of the pier the same way.

“The structure out there – the pilings and the planks – doesn’t go much further back than the 1990s,” he said. “But the idea goes back to the 1890s, and the desire to have fairly large vessels moor here.”

Not only was there a need for the pier after the city became an official port of entry in the early 1900s, local business boosters of the time had grandiose dreams of White Rock becoming a major port.

Those interests lured federal marine minister J.D. Hazen to White Rock in 1913 and – according to local legend – ensured that, when he disembarked from the yacht that brought him, he would have to navigate the only pier-like structure offering access to the town, a not-too-stable floating plank walkway (a picture is included in the exhibit), at high tide.

Not surprisingly, Ellenwood said, the minister soon declared “this town needs a substantial pier.”

The irony is, Ellenwood said, that by the time the pier was constructed in 1914, business schemes for a port facility were already foundering.

“It almost immediately became a recreational pier – and it’s stayed that way ever since.”

The exhibit covers the many recreational uses of the pier that have lingered in the consciousness of residents and visitors over the decades, including the years when cars were allowed on the pier, or when the city’s veterans built a Legion Hall on pilings next to the pier which became a hub of community activities.

“It was so valuable to the community that, when it burned down in 1935, it was soon rebuilt,” Ellenwood said, adding that the new structure ultimately became home to a legendary White Rock restaurant and gathering place, The Dolphins, until it, too, burned in 1970.

It’s a fact of life that the pier has needed serious repairs in almost every decade of its history, Ellenwood said.

“It always seemed to be on the verge of falling down in the ’30s and ’40s,” he said, noting that it had to be completely rebuilt in the late 1970s after being “saved” by yachting enthusiast Art Bates and his Save The Pier Committee.

The city has owned the pier since that time, Ellenwood said, while adding that it originally declined ownership in 1971 when it was offered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“Enjoying the pier is one thing – maintaining it and paying for it is another,” he observed.

At the same time he has no doubt that the pier will make yet another comeback from its current disrepair.

“It’s got too much history with us – it’s too well-cherished,” he said.

The gallery is located at 15140 North Bluff Rd. and is open Thursdays and Fridays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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Alex Browne photo City archivist Hugh Ellenwood has assembled historic photos from the collection of White Rock Museum and Archives for Our Pier: A Retrospective which opens Feb. 14 at the Landmark Pop Uptown Gallery at Central Plaza.

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