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39 facts about Pier 39 for its 39th birthday

(In)famous tourist trap celebrates eponymous birthday today

Photo by Randy Andy/Shutterstock

Thirty-nine years ago today, then-Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein, sporting a one-piece bathing suit, cut the ribbon and declared Pier 39 officially open.

Since then, the city’s most famous waterfront tourist trap has been reviled by purists as a manufactured experience free of authentic San Francisco character. But people love it anyway, and the grumblings of the elites have not sunk the pier after nearly four decades.

Precisely how a junked-out 1905 cargo pier became a hub of waffle cones, Alcatraz T-shirts, and sea lions is a story that grows stranger as years go by. Here’s a gander at some of the seaside sideshow’s colorful history:

1. Warren Simmons, the same developer behind the Chevy’s restaurant chain, first pitched the city on turning the derelict pier into a tourism hotspot in the early 1970s. To talk neighborhood groups into supporting him, he went around giving a slideshow presentation 28 times a week.

2. The lease the city eventually granted Simmons was good for 60 years and entitled him to most of the pier’s revenue. The deal has been the subject of complaints and allegations of corruption ever since.

3. At the time, the entire development cost roughly $30 million, the equivalent of $108 million today. Which is not all that much relative to what modern developments of similar scale run today.

4. Originally the locale was to house 103 shops and 23 restaurants, but only about half had doors open by the October 4 opening date.

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5. The only still-extant Pier 39 business open since day one: Swiss Louis Italian restaurant.

6. Speaking of longtime restaurant tenants, the nearly century-old Eagle Cafe’s original locale was where the pier’s parking garage is now. The owner moved the entire building to its present waterfront spot.

7. Future mayor of San Francisco and Sen. Dianne Feinstein cut the ribbon at Pier 39’s grand opening wearing a black one-piece “Sutro Baths” bathing suit. Why? According to her comments beforehand, she bet Simmons that he wouldn’t make his October 4 deadline. Because she lost she agreed to do the ribbon cutting “in a bikini,” and this was as close as she got.

8. Much of the lumber for Pier 39 came from other piers.

9. One pier that definitely didn’t contribute wood, however, was Pier 37, where an untimely fire destroyed the timber stores before Simmons could get his hands on them.

10. Pier 39 claims that it sees some 11 million visitors every year. For comparison, only 1.7 million visit Alcatraz, while some 10 million check out the Golden Gate Bridge.

11. However, the pier has touted that 11 million figure since at least 1998 (roughly half its lifespan), meaning that they’re not calculating much by way of annual variance into it.

12. San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic Allan Temko hated every board and nail of Pier 39 when it opened, dubbing it a dumping ground of “corn, kitsch, schlock, honky-tonk, dreck, schmaltz, merde,” as well as “pseudo-Victorian junk,” “non-architecture,” and an “ersatz San Francisco that never was.” Ouch.

13. However, current San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King, who calls the waterfront commerce collective “lowbrow and crass,” argues that its ambition and shrewd planning made it destined to succeed.

14. One of the pier’s earliest attractions was a “rainmaker,” who performed a magic act that concluded by spraying the entire crowd with water.

15. In another long-defunct act, tourists would dive into a 10-foot pool filled with Jell-O to retrieve personal item stranded at the bottom. It was the 1970s; let’s not judge them too harshly.

16. The Jell-O pool went out in favor of a carousel in 1983.

17. Originally the carousel sat in a Pier 39 arcade dubbed the “Palace of Fun Arts.”

18. But that’s not the carousel seen at the pier today; a two-story affair from Italy replaced the original in 2008.

19. For the curious, the carousel bears some 1,800 LED lights. And though it’s billed as having “30-plus” animals to ride, they missed out on a seemingly golden opportunity to make the menagerie 39 strong.

20. Simmons dubbed Pier 39 ferries the Blue and Gold Fleet as a tribute to UC Berkeley, where he graduated in the 1940s.

21. Incidentally, according to Simmon’s 2006 obituary, he sold all of Pier 39, sweetheart lease and all, less than three three years after it opened on account of even more legal troubles.

22. Since Simmons sold his chain of Mexican restaurants to raise money for Pier 39, he next turned around and opened Chevy’s in Alameda. He ended up with nearly 40 locations by the time he sold it to Pepsi in the early 1990s.

23. Incidentally, son Scooter Simmons owns three Pier 39 restaurants today.

24. Speaking of ambitious restaurants, Forbes Island—actually a barge rather than a real island, of course—made its claim to fame by floating off of the pier for almost 20 years but closed unexpectedly in August. The owner says that it will relocate to a land-bound site in the near future.

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25. As the pier itself points out, nobody can conclusively figure out why sea lions like the spot quite so much, as the showboating pinnipeds just showed up one day, growing from an initial group of six in late 1989.

26. Rumor suggests the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake had something to do with their appearance, but more likely they came for the area’s herring population.

27. In 1990s, restaurant owners on the pier complained about the sea lions in bitter terms, dubbing them a “horde of smelly loudmouths.” Which is hard to deny, really.

28. The technical term for a spot where dozens or hundreds of sea lions just hang around like that is a “haul out,” something most pinnipeds do regularly to rest, socialize, warm up, and avoid predators.

29. The oft-cited population record was 1,701 sea lions in November of 2009, requiring half a dozen new docks to accommodate them all.

30. But no sooner did their population crest than almost all of sea lions mysteriously disappeared late that same year. They came back in smaller numbers, but then pulled another disappearing act in 2014.

31. Despite fears of permanent disembarkation, the sea lions have never entirely quit the pier locale, and you can check in on them via webcam.

32. Remo Saraceni, creator of Pier 39’s piano staircase, previously created the giant sidewalk piano featured in the Tom Hanks movie Big.

33. In 1979, a group of clowns sued Pier 39 for evicting their balloon-making business. No word on whether they all showed up to court in the same car.

34. To play up its Victorian veneer (yes, it’s supposed to look Victorian; just go with it), Pier 39 once had a service offering horse-drawn carriage rides. Owner John Henkel had to move in 1985 after complaints about all of the manure.

35. During Tulip season in February, “Tulipmania” conducts walking tours of the pier showing off the up to 40,000 tulips that bloom in the area, an attraction as old as the pier itself.

36. Performances at the Crystal Geyser stage happen in 80-minute shifts, meaning new shows start on a very specific timetable: 12 p.m., 1:20 p.m., 2:40 p.m., 4 p.m., 5:20 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 7:40 p.m. and 8:50 p.m. Current acts include “some kind of comedian” and “elegant geek tricks.”

37. A breakwater, described as “an envelope of concrete and steel in the base of the pier,” protects it from the waves. Prior to the pier opening, the breakwater consisted of just old tires.

38. The pier began its anniversary celebration early, kicking it off in January so that it would culminate this week after 39 weeks.

39. But oddly, the big birthday party won’t happen for another 10 days yet, with fireworks and “roving glow-in-the-dark entertainment.” Which is probably less alarming than it sounds.

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