History of the Seacliff Beach Cement Ship

One of the most remarkable landmarks along the Santa Cruz coastline is the S. S. Palo Alto, more traditionally known as the old “cement ship”. Lodged at the end of the Seacliff State Beach fishing pier in Aptos, the ship remains a nostalgic symbol of local life and activities from the past.

Long before the waves and winter storms cracked the hull and sunk the ship into the sand, the S. S. Palo Alto was a 435-foot long, 7,500-ton oil tanker built for use during World War I. When the U.S. government commissioned new ships to replace those destroyed by German submarines, the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation built ships from reinforced concrete, using technology developed by a Norwegian civil engineer, Nicolay Knudtzon Fougner, and his brother Hermann.

In 1919, the Palo Alto was constructed along with a sister ship, the Peralta, at the U.S. Naval Shipyard in Oakland, by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company. The cement used for building the ship’s thin concrete hull came from Davenport, and it is thought that some of the brick used in place of gravel to lighten the weight was rubble from the San Francisco earthquake. The ship was equipped with a 2,800 horsepower steam engine, a bronze propeller, white Norwegian ash decks, and 14 compartments to hold 3 million gallons of oil.

The war ended before the Palo Alto was completed, so it was sailed from the shipyard in Oakland to be anchored at Pier 33 in San Francisco in January, 1921. Concrete ships were not popular post-war, so the Palo Alto was eventually stripped of her engine and propeller, and sold to the Seacliff Amusement Corporation in 1929. In 1930, the ship was towed to Seacliff Beach by a Red Stack tugboat, where it was beached to be refitted as a pleasure ship, and the 630 ft. fishing pier was built to connect with the ship’s stern.

S. S. Palto AltoThe Palo Alto’s renovations included a 54 by 154 ft. dance floor, a 54 ft. heated swimming pool, a café, and carnival type concessions. In the summer of 1930, 3,000 people attended the opening of the ship’s Rainbow Ballroom, which featured famous big bands like Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. The ship was also a hotspot for games of chance. There were slot machines and bingo on the deck, and it’s rumored, gambling below it. As legend has it, during the Prohibition the surrounding beach was also a notorious hotspot for deliveries of illegal liquor.

Bow section of cement ship, circa 1940's.

Bow section of cement ship, circa 1940’s.

After two summer seasons the owners went broke. In the following winter of 1932, the Seacliff Amusement Corporation went bankrupt and a storm cracked the ship’s hull in the middle. The ship was stripped of its valuables, and in 1936, was sold to the state for one dollar. Originally, the ship’s estimated cost was $1.5 million.

In 2001, public access onto the S. S. Palo Alto was permanently closed. Battered by the storms of 2016-17, the stern upended, endangering the structure of the pier and leading to its indefinite closure. Despite its inevitable decline, the iconic cement ship still holds historical and sentimental value for locals and has created a sanctuary for sealife and sandbar for surfers. Only time and the elements will tell how long this unique nautical relic will remain above water.

Find out more about the cement ship at the Aptos History Museum and Seacliff State Beach Visitors Center.

Photos courtesy of John Hibble, Director of the Aptos Chamber of Commerce and Aptos Museum.

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13 Responses to History of the Seacliff Beach Cement Ship

  1. David McKinnon February 5, 2018 at 12:50 pm #

    nice to meet you Fleur.

  2. Jody February 18, 2018 at 3:31 pm #

    Thanks for expanding the history of this remarkable landmark!

  3. Glen p September 1, 2018 at 6:53 pm #

    I remember fishing off that boat in the mid-late 70s! Sad to see its condition today!

  4. Mike Hagmaier September 3, 2018 at 6:04 pm #

    I remember walking out on the deck with my Dad back in the late 70s when we stayed at a beach rental during the summer. Brought back a lot of great memories even though it looks so different now!
    Thanks for the great historical summary!

  5. jakob knuth September 24, 2018 at 1:37 am #

    I lived in Santa Cruz for abought 12 years and I am only 16 my parents had lived in Santa Cruz for almost 20 years. I remember hearing this story as a young boy and it is sad to see it go the history is so great even tho I didn’t walk out on the ship ever I do remember kids from the jr.gards going and jumping off the pear and swimming around it

  6. Tony Ferraro February 2, 2019 at 8:27 am #

    I caught my first fish off the end of the ship when I was 6 years old a link cod that was bigger than me
    Our family and friends spent many a weekend fishing off the Cement Boat
    Sure do miss those days

  7. David Surratt May 1, 2019 at 10:08 am #

    We spent many a summer at Seacliff and would go onto the boat in the Sixties. My grand father would go crabbing in the 30’s and 40’s. Sorry to see it’s condition now.

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  9. Tina February 11, 2020 at 4:35 pm #

    Used to go there a lot with my aunt and her sister, who lived nearby. I have fond memories of the cement ship. Sad to see the state its in

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