pier, in engineering, term applied to a mass of reinforced concrete or masonry supporting a large structure, such as a bridge. When piers are built on ground of poor bearing value, it is often necessary to drive piles to obtain a firm base. Construction of piers built in riverbeds is facilitated by the use of cofferdams or caissons. Structures that extend out from the shore and over the water, serving as a place to land passengers and merchandise from vessels, are also known as piers. They are used in many harbors when there is ample width of stream; in New York harbor, for example, great economy of shore front is realized by building piers out at right angles to the shore. These piers are generally built on pile foundations. In architecture the term applies to the clustered Gothic pillar, to a wall between openings, and to a detached masonry mass serving as a gate post.

A pier is a raised walkway over water, supported by widely spread piles or pillars. The lighter structure of a pier allows tides and currents to flow almost unhindered, whereas the more solid foundations of a quay or the closely-spaced piles of a wharf can act as breakwaters, and are consequently more liable to silting. Piers can range in size and complexity from a simple lightweight wooden structure to major structures extended over a mile out to sea. In American English, pier may be synonymous with dock.

Piers have been built for several different purposes, and because these different purposes have distinct regional variances, the term pier tends to have different nuances of meaning in different parts of the world. Thus in North America and Australia, where many ports were, until recently, built on the multiple pier model, the term tends to imply a current or former cargo-handling facility. In Europe however, where ports have tended to use basins and river-side quays rather than piers, the term is principally associated with the image of a Victorian cast iron pleasure pier.

Types of pier

Piers can be categorized into different groupings, depending on the principal purpose. It should be realized that there is, nonetheless, a significant amount of overlap. For example, pleasure piers often also allowed for the docking of pleasure steamers and other similar craft, whilst working piers have often been converted to leisure use after being rendered obsolete by changes in cargo-handling technology.

Working piers

Working piers were built for the handling of passengers and cargo onto and off ships. Working piers themselves fall into two different groups. Longer individual piers are often found at ports with large tidal ranges, with the pier stretching far enough off shore to reach deep water at low tide. Such piers provided an economical alternative to impounded docks where cargo volumes were low, or where specialist bulk cargos were handled such as at coal piers. An early example of an individual working pier is Ryde Pier, opened in 1814 to serve ferries between the English mainland and the Isle of Wight.

The other form of working pier, often called the finger pier, was built at ports with smaller tidal ranges. Here the principal advantage was to give a greater available quay length for ships to berth against compared to a linear littoral quayside, and such piers are usually much shorter. Typically each pier would carry a single transit shed the length of the pier, with ships berthing bow or stern in to the shore. Some major ports consisted of large numbers of such piers lining the foreshore, classic examples being the Hudson River frontage of New York, or the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

The advent of container shipping, with its need for large container handling spaces adjacent to the shipping berths, has made working piers obsolete for the handling of general cargo, although some still survive for the handling of passenger ships or bulk cargos. Many working piers have been demolished, or remain derelict, but others have been recycled as pleasure piers. The best known example of this is Pier 39 in San Francisco.

Pleasure piers

Pleasure piers were first built in England, during the 19th century. At that time the introduction of the railways for the first time permitted mass tourism to dedicated seaside resorts. However, the large tidal ranges at many such resorts meant that for much of the day, the sea was not visible from dry land. The pleasure pier was the resorts' answer, permitting holiday makers to promenade over and alongside the sea at all times. The longest Pleasure pier in the world is at Southend-on-sea, Essex, and extends into the Thames estuary. The longest pier on the West Coast of the United States is the Oceanside Pier.

Pleasure piers often include other amusements and theatres as part of the attraction. Such a pier may be open air, closed, or partly open, partly closed. Sometimes a pier has two decks.

Early pleasure piers were of wooden construction, with iron structures being introduced with the construction in 1855 of Margate Jetty, in Margate, England. One of the oldest iron piers still remaining is in Southport, also in England and dates from 1860.

Fishing piers

Many piers are built for the purpose of providing land locked anglers access to fishing grounds that are otherwise inaccessible.

Piers of the world

See the List of piers article for details of piers in countries across the world.

England and Wales

The first recorded pier in England was Ryde Pier, opened in 1814 on the Isle of Wight, as a working pier to allow ferries to and from the mainland to berth. It is still used for this purpose today. The oldest cast iron pier in the world is Gravesend Town Pier, in Kent], which opened in 1834.

In their heyday, there were many pleasure piers across England and Wales. These were found in most fashionable seaside resorts during the Victorian era. There are still a significant number of piers of architectural merit still standing, although some have been lost. The most well known piers are perhaps the two at Brighton in East Sussex and the three at Blackpool in Lancashire. Two piers, Brighton's now derelict West Pier and Clevedon Pier, are Grade 1 listed. The Birnbeck Pier in Weston-super-Mare is the only pier in the world that is linked to an island. The National Piers Society gives a figure of 55 surviving seaside piers in England and Wales.


Scheveningen, the coastal resort town of The Hague, boasts the largest pier in the Netherlands, it was completed in 1961. A crane, built on top of the pier's panorama tower, provides the opportunity to make a 60 m. high bungee jump over the North Sea waves. The present pier is a successor of an earlier pier, which was completed in 1901 but in 1943 destroyed by the German occupation forces.

See also


  • Turner, K., (1999), Pier Railways and Tramways of the British Isles, The Oakwood Press, No. LP60, ISBN 0-85361-541-1

External links

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