Wrightsville Beach Piers

BY Carole Wirszyla

The piers of Wrightsville Beach have stories to tell.
Looking north the sunrise softens the harsh lines of the sturdy
new concrete structure known as Johnnie Mercer’s Pier
and to the south the first rays of light illuminate the remnants
of the more traditional older wooden formation known as Crystal Pier.

The fact that a third pier once stood alone along this beautiful stretch of the North Carolina coast is less well known. Featuring a two-story pavilion and an observation deck a steel pier built in 1910 once stretched from Lumina Avenue’s Seashore Hotel (where the Blockade Runner now stands) 700 feet out into the Atlantic. During the pier’s short life guests enjoyed the view and spent time at the tea room in its pavilion. In 1919 and 1920 Nor’easters took their toll on the structure and the weakened pilings were swept away by a storm in 1921 the steel remnants damaging cottages to the south.

The Seashore Hotel’s steel pier was never rebuilt; however shortly after the devastating Wrightsville Beach fire of 1934 two new piers emerged: Atlantic View (now known as Johnnie Mercer’s Pier) to the north and Mira Mar Pier (now known as Crystal Pier) to the south. Before its destruction in the 1990s the Atlantic View Pier was the second oldest pier (Kure Beach pier being the oldest) along the North Carolina coast.

Wrightsville Beach native Bill Creasy describes Atlantic View Pier as one of the many structures built by contractor Luther Rogers after the fire. As a child Creasy remembers the bait and tackle shop on the main pier and the counter where they sold hot dogs burgers and fries. He also recalls the bowling alley in the base of the structure. “I used to work in the bowling alley setting up pins ” he says. “There were no automatic pin setters — you picked the pins up and set them individually!”

Fred Sternberger whose family owned houses at Station One (the trolley line stop not the condominiums) often played at the bowling alley. He also used to swim around the T-shaped end of the 912-foot-long Atlantic View Pier. He remembers fishing with his two older brothers — sometimes at three in the morning!

In the mid-1940s Atlantic View Pier was purchased and renamed by local businessman Johnnie Mercer (no connection to the famed singer). In 1954 the pier like many other structures was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel and had to be partially rebuilt. Mercer was killed in a car accident in 1964 but his wife Wanda continued the upkeep of the pier until she sold it to Bob Johnson and his family in 1968.

The wooden Johnnie Mercer’s Pier remained a popular Wrightsville Beach attraction until 1996 when Hurricane Bertha ravaged the pier once more creating a need for repairs. Finally in October of the same year Hurricane Fran destroyed the structure completely.

Although this was a devastating blow the Johnsons decided to rebuild the pier in a way that is touted as indestructible. In 1999 local marine contractors started building the state’s first all-concrete fishing pier. Made of reinforced concrete each pylon weighed 414 pounds per foot. The pylons farthest out into the ocean measure 66 feet tall and the water there at high tide rises as high as 24 feet. This robust combination of distinctive style and durability finally opened to the public as a fishing pier in September 2002.

James Neal was the first person employed there after the reopening. A quintessential pier rat (a term of affection used for frequent pier-goers) from the age of 9 Neal has many a pier tale to tell. Not long after the new pier opened he remembers a boy and girl coming up the ramp giggling. “Next they were running down the pier butt-naked ” he says. Concerned for their safety he reported them and the police came and took them away … without letting them collect their clothes!

Most of Neal’s earlier memories relate to the good old days of fishing off Crystal (formerly Mira Mar) Pier. For instance there was the day of his eldest son’s christening when Neal caught 16 mackerel while dressed in a three-piece suit! Another time he helped a young boy pull up his first king mackerel. The ensuing struggle led to many onlookers leaning over the railing causing the whole wooden structure to bow. When everyone realized the potential for disaster and stepped away the railing sprung back and catapulted Neal and the boy to the other side. “But sure enough we got the king ” says Neal.

Bill Creasy wasn’t a pier fisherman himself but he remembers that many folks came to the island’s pier just to enjoy watching others fish. Back in the 1930s and 1940s there were no surfers only swimmers and beach walkers and from the Atlantic View Pier one could see all the way down the beach to the Mira Mar Pier. “Once in a while we would walk down to the other pier and when we got to Lumina we’d always have 10 or 15 cents to buy ourselves a cherry Coke or something ” Creasy fondly recalls.

The 1 000-foot-long Mira Mar Pier built of cypress timbers with its close proximity to Lumina was also known as Luna Pier. Creasy remembers the construction of this pier vividly. It reached out to cover the shipwrecked blockade runner The Fanny and Jenny. Dynamite was used to blast holes for the pilings and the blasting killed thousands of fish. “The dead fish would float around here (sound side) on the rising tide ” he says. The upside was that the wreck was a haven for fishermen and at low tide remnants of the wreck could be seen from the pier.

That was a short-lived luxury. Luna Pier was bought by Mike Zesafellus in the late 1940s and renamed Crystal Pier after the restaurant he also owned on Front Street in Wilmington. Mike’s son George says that before Hurricane Hazel’s arrival the pier housed a summer dwelling above and a restaurant below. After Hazel destroyed the pier in 1954 the structure was rebuilt and included a motel and apartments. The business continued as such until it was sold to the Fokakis brothers in the 1980s.

The pier was taken over in 1989 by Monica Wells and renovated in 1990 to include the Oceanic Restaurant. Hurricane Fran took out most of its length in 1996. Of the remaining 200 feet dining is permitted up to 100 feet from the back door of the Oceanic. Diners and visitors may walk a little farther out but the weakened part of the structure is fenced off.

Looking east over the cordoned-off 100 feet of Crystal Pier one senses the ravages of time. The crooked railings and rollercoaster pitch of the boards show a pier bent and twisted by nature’s wrath. Strong winds from the south cause the boards to creak and groan as a reminder of hurricanes past. To the west the restaurant casts shadows against a backdrop of the setting sun. Johnnie Mercer’s stands firm to the north living proof of man’s victory over nature … for now.