'Everybody's floored': Inlet Beach residents outraged after iconic pier removed without warning

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

INLET BEACH — The loss of an iconic old pier — or at least the bare wooden bones of what had been an iconic old pier — at Camp Helen State Park has triggered frustration and a flood of memories for people long enchanted by the old structure.

But according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), whose Division of Recreation and Parks provides technical and professional services to Florida's state parks, the remnants of the pier were judged by the division and the FDEP's safety officer to be a public safety hazard.

As a result of that determination, the pier remnants were removed Monday by the Florida Park Service working with the Bay County government, according to a Thursday email from the FDEP responding to an inquiry from the Daily News.

"Over the past year, significant storms have dislodged boards and pilings, which decreased the stability of the structure," the FDEP email noted, explaining that the remnants were "removed in March so as to be done before the start of hurricane and sea turtle nesting seasons."

The remnants of the old fishing pier at Camp Helen State Park are seen in September 2016. The pilings of the approximately 80-year-old pier were removed Monday.

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The email added that the "Florida Park Service (FPS) is committed to providing resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring natural and cultural resources. Ensuring visitor safety while in pursuit of this mission is of utmost importance."

The loss of the remains of the pier, which had been built about 80 years ago, triggered displays of photographs of the old structure on social media, and some concerned comment about the removal.

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On the Facebook page "Walton County Ideas for Visioning and Quality of Life," photos of the structure — mostly from recent years but with at least one photo from nearly 30 years ago when the structure was still recognizable as a pier — were proliferating on Tuesday as word of the removal of its remains began to circulate.

"What was left of that structure had been captured in thousands of photos," said Inlet Beach resident Rich Jaffe, who fished from the pier as a teenager. "It's made memories for people."

People sunbathe near the remnants of the old fishing pier at Camp Helen State Park in September 2016. What was left of the pier was removed Monday.

Jaffe called the removal of the pier's remains a "callous disregard for a piece of the community's history" and said there was no notice provided in Inlet Beach — which straddles the Walton County and Bay County lines and includes Camp Helen State Park — that the remains of the pier were to be removed.

Had the community been notified, Jaffe said, "I can guarantee you there would have been people out there."

At the least, Jaffe suggested, the community might have been able to commemorate the pier's presence, perhaps with a plaque attached to a piling left standing as a reminder of its place in community history.

"The whole community is angry that nobody made an effort to memorialize this," Jaffe said. "Maybe they (the Florida Park Service and Bay County) could have even shored up what was left of it.

"Everybody's floored," he added.  "The reaction to it has just been tremendous."

According to the "Stories" section of the website 30A.com, which provides information about activities along Walton County Road 30A, the pier was built in the 1940s by Avondale Mills, a textile company that operated mills in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. It was part of a beach retreat built by the company as an incentive for workers, who could earn week-long paid vacations at what was then called Camp Helen.

The retreat at the time featured duplexes built by Avondale Mills along with a lodge and cottages built by the property's previous owner.

The state of Florida purchased the property in 1996 and established it as Camp Helen State Park. By that time, though, the pier had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Eloise in 1975.