100 Years and Counting: The ‘SS Palo Alto’

Santa Cruz County celebrates its concrete curiosity

The SS Palo Alto might be the most unlikely of Santa Cruz County landmarks. Constructed of concrete in 1919, and named for another Bay Area town, the Cement Ship—a nickname quickly adopted by most locals—has been a beloved icon of Seacliff State Beach in Aptos since it was hauled out to the seafront in 1929. Resting at the end of a fishing pier, the concrete tanker never saw the wartime service it was intended for, yet has generated a century’s worth of splashy headlines, from hosting Roaring 20s-era soirees to weathering brutal storms that eventually damaged it. Take a peek into a century of history and maritime memories of the iconic SS Palo Alto.

Why a Concrete Ship?

Facing potential steel shortages during WWI, President Woodrow Wilson approved an emergency fleet of ships made from steel-reinforced concrete in 1917. Dubbed “ferroconcrete” by its French inventor, Joseph-Louis Lambot, the new material proved cheaper and more readily available than traditional steel. Yet, the pioneering ships never saw service, as WWI ended shortly after construction of 12 initial tankers which included the 420-foot SS Palo Alto.

The Dancing & Dining Years

The SS Palo Alto remained in Oakland’s naval shipyard until 1929 when the Cal-Nevada Stock Company came along with a new vision for the ship. They towed it out to Seacliff Beach, anchored it to the sea floor, and repurposed the concrete vessel as an entertainment venue. By 1930, the tanker was decked out with a casino, midway games, heated swimming pool, and the popular Rainbow Ballroom and Fish Palace restaurant. A newly constructed pier extended from the shore, and a neon sign perched atop the seaside bluffs beckoned revelers with the simple words, “The Ship.” Yet, the festivities lasted only two years as the Great Depression sunk both the enterprising company and party aboard the SS Palo Alto. In 1932, the ship was stripped of its merrymaking, and became a frequented spot for fishermen to cast a line.

Sold for a Dollar

In 1936, the SS Palo Alto was sold to the State of California, and made an official part of Seacliff State Beach—the sale price was $1. Visitors were welcome to stroll the ship’s deck and marvel at the concrete curiosity and the surrounding bay. Yet, by the 1950s, years of deterioration forced portions of the ship to be closed to the public. By the 1980s, the entire vessel was deemed unsafe, and declared off-limits. In 2006, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife began a $1.7 million clean-up of the ship’s weathered fuel tanks to prevent further harm to wildlife. In 2017, the ship itself was threatened when strong winter storms pummeled its concrete hull—swells reached a record height of 34 feet—and snapped off the stern. Eddie Rhee-Pizano, a lifeguard supervisor for California State Parks, noted that a previous dive around the ship revealed erosion of sand beneath the stern which made it especially susceptible.

An Artificial Reef

Today, the tussled ship—as well as the section of the pier closest to the ship—is closed to the public, yet it still bustles with life. The ship’s remains serve as an artificial reef, home to various marine life and sea birds. The ship’s sides are blanked with tide pool regulars such as mussels, sea stars and anemones, while fish such as halibut, lingcod, and mackerel dart about its underwater interiors. Harbor seals and sea lions are regular visitors to the ship, and flocks of seabirds such as pelicans and cormorants are nearly always perched on the deck. Fishermen, boats, divers, and surfers must stay 100 feet away from the ship at all times, yet the wreckage and its wildlife can readily be viewed from the pier, shore, and backing seaside bluffs, especially with a pair of binoculars. Plus, visitors can discover further cultural and natural history of the SS Palo Alto at the state park visitor center staffed by knowledgeable interpreters.

Centennial Celebrations of 2019

In 2019, in honor of the SS Palo Alto’s 100th birthday, local organizations such as Friends of the Santa Cruz State Parks hosted numerous events to celebrate the ship and its history. Locals and visitors shared memories, celebrated, and paid special tribute to this beloved Santa Cruz County icon.

Wooden Pier Rocked by Storms in 2023

At the end of 2022 and through the beginning of January 2023, Santa Cruz County experienced a parade of atmospheric rivers and storms that rocked the area. The iconic Seacliff State Beach’s wooden pier could not withstand the high surf and large waves, and although the SS Palo Alto is still visible, much of the famed pier has been severely damaged or destroyed. The state beach is currently open and welcoming visitors but some areas are closed for repairs. For more information and updates on the park, visit the Seacliff State Beach Instagram page.