Many times during the last 114 years the landmark pier at Old Orchard Beach has succumbed to the forces of nature. Each time it was repaired or rebuilt against significant odds. In a violent spring storm in 1909, six men spent 2 1/2 days marooned at the end of the pier. For a while it looked like they might meet their own end 1/3 of a mile from shore.
The pier was first built in 1898 by the Berlin Bridge Company of East Berlin, CT. At 25 feet wide by 1770 feet long, the original steel structure was the longest ocean pier in the world. Dedication ceremonies lasted from Saturday July 2, 1898, when ex-mayor Bradbury gave a speech, through the 4th of July when the band first played in the 75×125 foot cafe and dance hall casino pavilion at the end of the pier.
The first summer season was wildly profitable for the Old Orchard Pier Company. In an interview in the Boston Daily Globe dated Dec. 4, 1898, representatives gloated that contrary to many gloomy predictions, the framework of the pier was not bothered in the least by rough weather. “If Sunday’s storm could do no damage no other is likely to.” They had to eat their words later that night when 150 feet of the 5 month old pier and the enormous pavilion at its end were carried away by a storm. The wreckage came ashore on the beach a short distance from the pier. Damage was repaired and a new casino pavilion was open for business by the end of the following July.
The 1898 incident was the first of many. Lightning, fire and storms have battered several pier structures over the years and continue to do so. Probably the most dramatic reconstruction attempt took place during the spring of 1909.
On March 26, 1909, 300 feet of pier from the middle of its 1770 span was washed away leaving the casino connected to the shore by nothing but a lone electrical wire. One of the principal pier owners, Fred Goodwin, assured the public that work to repair the pier would begin immediately but that was easier said than done. The pier had been shortened by the storm and what was left of the casino would need to be moved nearly 1000 feet closer to shore.
Work was slow to start due to unpredictable weather. According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald, six men were sent in a boat to the end of the pier on the morning of April 30th to prepare for the removal of the casino. Among the workmen were John Freeman and Edward Charland of Old Orchard and John Foss, John Hayes, James Farley and Charles Watson of Biddeford.
Soon after they reached the end of the pier the sky thickened and the sea started churning. The workmen watched helplessly as their tender broke loose and was carried away on a wave. Several rescue parties were formed but each turned back before reaching the castaways.
It was reported in the New York Times that the next day the workmen were still “marooned with no prospect of relief until the tempest subsides.” They hadn’t had food or water for 24 hours. Finally someone noticed the electrical wire still connecting the two parts of the pier. Cans were filled with food and water, sealed up and attached to the wire. When the men at the casino got the signal they pulled the cans to their desert island of steel and wood. This bought some time but rescue was still impossible. The men took shelter in the casino and tore up some of the floorboards for a fire while they waited for the weather to break.
By the next morning the storm had finally begun to subside. More than 100 people gathered on the beach. Fletcher’s Neck life-saving station, seven miles across the bay, was wired to send a lifeboat over. Before the crew got started, however, a “hearty French Canadian boatman, Eugene Bill, dragged his dory down to the water’s edge, and shoving out, grabbed a single oar to guide her -canoe fashion-through ten foot waves.”
The casino loomed 20 feet above the surface of the water. Bill had a well-constructed rope ladder with him, which he was able to toss it to one of the men on the pier. Bill struggled to steady the boat for a second while the first man quickly slid down the rope and tumbled into the dory. Each time he took a man off the boatman was obliged to pull away from the pier and then cautiously return. “The waves would allow him to remain but a second else they had dashed his little dory to pieces against the iron pilings of the pier,” wrote the Times reporter.
In this way, Eugene Bill rescued three of the men and then went back out a second time to rescue those remaining at the casino. Thanks to him, all six of the workmen were landed safe and sound after being stranded for 60 hours 1/3 of a mile out to sea.
The steel pier was replaced by a shorter wooden one in 1911. That pier sustained severe damage in several storms of the early 1930s. A stone barge severed the pier during another storm. In 1969, the shore end of the pier was heavily damaged by a fire that also burned Noah’s Ark funhouse, the coal mine ride, the slide and hand-carved merry-go-round. The casino section was torn down in 1970 after damage caused by a storm. The pier was damaged again in 1972 and it was washed away in February of 1978. The present 475 foot pier was built in 1980.