If you’ve ever been to Seacliff State Beach in Aptos, you are sure to have seen what remains of the famous 434-foot cement ship, the SS Palo Alto, right off shore.
Cement ships were built during WWI and again during WWII when the typical materials used to construct sea faring vessels, such as steel and timber, were in short supply. The reinforced concrete, or ferrocement, used to make these ships was cheap and easily accessible, though construction labor costs and operating costs were considerable. But, when maritime vessels where needed, cement ships were a viable option, though most weren’t completed in time to see any wartime action.
During World War I, the United States hired a New York state shipbuilding company to explore the feasibility of ferrocement ships for its wartime fleet. Not long after, W. Leslie Comyn, a California businessman, launched the San Francisco Ship Building Company and constructed the first American cement ship, the SS Faith. On her heels, Comyn’s team built the SS Palo Alto at the US Naval shipyard based in Oakland. The oil tanker cost $1.7million to construct and was launched on May 29, 1919, about six months after the end of WWI.
The ship was decommissioned and remained in Oakland until 1929 when it was purchased by the Seacliff Amusement Corporation. The cement ship was towed to Seacliff State Beach where it was sunk so its keel rested on the bottom of the Monterey Bay while the majority of the ship remained above water. In 1930, a 500-foot long pier was built leading to the ship, and the ship itself was renovated to be an entertainment venue that included a dance floor, casino, arcades, swimming pool and café. Big bands the likes of Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra, Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman played in the SS Palo Alto’s Rainbow Ballroom. Two years later, the Great Depression hit and Seacliff Amusement Corporation fell victim to bankruptcy, as did many other businesses of the time. The cement ship closed its doors to the public. Not long after, the ship sustained its first major crack at its midsection during a severe winter storm.
Eventually, the state of California purchased the cement ship, transforming it into a recreational fishing pier enjoyed by residents and visitors. Over time, the wind and waves continued to wreaked havoc on the ship, causing deterioration to the point where it was no longer safe for public use. The cement ship was once again closed in the 1950s for over three decades. In the 1980’s another restoration was undertaken but this too, only lasted for a few years before the ship was again deemed unsafe. Fast forward to the summer of 2016 when the ship was opened to foot track for a brief period until it was shut down for much needed repairs.
Today, the cement ship serves as an artificial reef for the local marine life at Seacliff Beach. Pelicans, seagulls and other birds frequent the ship as a place to rest while fish, sea lions and other animals feed off the algae and small fish that live in, on and around the submerged wreckage.
In 2005, a massive clean-up project was undertaken to remove 500 gallons of fuel oil that was leaking from the ship’s cracked fuel tanks. Though no oil spilled directly into the ocean itself, numerous birds were affected when they dove into the ship’s hull in search of fish. This undertaking cost approximately the same amount as the construction of the ship itself.
Over the decades, the SS Palo Alto has been beaten by the rough surf along the shoreline, breaking her into four distinct pieces. Winter storms in late 2016 pushed the cement hulk onto its starboard side and cracked open the rear half while yet another storm in January 2017 ripped the stern off the ship. Despite its continuing deterioration at the hands of Mother Nature, the SS Palo Alto will remain where it lies.
The former steamship is still one of the most photographed landmarks in the area and an indelible part of the history of Aptos and the Santa Cruz area. A daytrip to see the cement ship is only enhanced by the sandy shore of Seacliff State Beach. Be sure to bring binoculars-the only way to get up close and personal with the cement ship these days. Enjoy the picnic and BBQ areas and stop by the Seacliff interpretive center. And of course, bring your camera. A photo of the iconic World War I SS Palo Alto should be on your bucket list.
Seacliff State Beach
201 State Park Drive, Aptos
For more information, call (831) 685-6444 or 685-6500