The SS Palo Alto in late evening light.
Historical Concrete Ships to Serve as Emergency Fleet in WWI
Toward the end of the First World War, the United States commissioned the construction of twelve experimental concrete ships. None of the ships were finished until after the end of the war. Most were eventually sunk as breakwaters or recreational piers. Here is the story of three of them: the SS Palo Alto and her sister ship the SS Peralto, and their famous East Coast cousin the SS Atlantus.
During a recent afternoon at the Seacliff Beach on a sunny afternoon, I waited until sunset and captured these images of the SS Palo Alto as it serves as a bird sanctuary for cormorants, brown pelicans, gulls, terns and other sea birds at the end of the old pier.
SS Palo Alto
A unique pier in isn’t just a pier…it is also home to a historic WWI era concrete ship that once floated offshore as an entertainment vessel for dining, dancing and fun. Known as The SS Palo Alto (“The Cement Boat”), you’ll find the historic ship located south of Santa Cruz off Highway 1, at . This two mile, sandy beach at the foot of sandstone cliffs offers day parking, camping, swimming, fishing, bicycling and roller blading for starters. The pier is easily viewed from land or air as you fly out of destinations such as Monterrey.
The SS Palo Alto was built by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in Oakland in 1919 as an oil tanker for the World War I effort. The war ended before she ever saw service and with time on her hands, she was sold to the Seacliff Amusement Company of Nevada, and towed in 1929 to what would later become Seacliff State Beach. A casino and dance hall, arcades and entertainment were featured on this monster party boat until its owners went belly when the Great Depression rocked the world in the early 1930’s.
Today, the Palo Alto sits on the floor of the Monterey Bay. One of the most photographed landmarks of the region, birds have discovered a haven not accessible to humans. Bring a pair of binoculars to watch the hundreds of birds that sit on the ship. Time has taken its toll on the ship and the cement is cracked and crumbling, yet it is still a sight to see. Beach facilities where you can enjoy watching birds include a beautiful stretch of sandy beach, covered picnic areas with barbecues public restrooms, trailer campsites and an interpretive center which has natural and local cultural history exhibits.
SS Palo Alto on the end of the Pier, now broken in at least 3 pieces.
SS Palo Alto at the end of the historical Pier
Warm light at the end of the day
The Pier after Sunset
At the end of the day...
The SS Peralta is the sister ship of the SS Palo Alto, built as an oil tanker also by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company and launched in February of 1921. In 1924, the Peralta was purchased and converted into a sardine cannery in Alaska. 24 years later, the ship was moored off Antioch, CA.
Finally, in 1958, the Peralta was purchased by Pacifica Papers to be used as part of a giant floating breakwater on the Powell River to protect its log storage pond. She floats aside several of concrete ships built during World War II. The Peralta is still afloat as part of a breakwater for a pulp and paper mill in Powell River in British Columbia, Canada. She is the last ship of the World War I fleet still afloat. At 420 feet, she is also the largest concrete ship afloat.
In December of 2000, the mill was downsized as the result of a corporate merger between Pacifica Papers and NorskeCanada. The mill no longer processes raw materials, so they were planning to remove a few ships from the breakwater. There was discussion of sinking the Peralta as an artificial reef; however, the company changed its mind and decided to keep all ten breakwater ships. The Peralta is safe for now.
The 3rd concrete ship, the SS Atlantus was built by the Liberty Ship Building Company in Brunswick, Georgia and launched on December 5, 1918 and was the second concrete ship constructed in the World War I Emergency Fleet.
The war had ended a month earlier, but the Atlantus was used to transport American troops back home from Europe and also to transport coal in New England. In 1920, the ship was retired to a salvage yard in Virginia.
In 1926, the Atlantus was purchased by Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld to be used as ferry dock in Cape May, New Jersey for a proposed ferry between Cape May and Cape Henlopen, DE. The plan was to dig a channel into to the shore where the Atlantus would be placed. Two other concrete ships would be purchased to form a Y-shape where the ferry would dock.
In March 1926, the groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the construction of the ferry dock. The Atlantus was repaired and towed to Cape May. On June 8th, a storm hit and the ship broke free of her moorings and ran aground 150 feet off the coast of Sunset Beach. Several attempts were made to free the ship, but none were successful.
Since then the Atlantus has become a tourist attraction seen by millions. People used to swim out to the ship and dive off, until one young man drowned. At one time, a billboard was also placed on the ship. Starting in the late 50's, the ship began to split apart in the midsection.
The S. S. Atlantus can be seen at Sunset Beach in Cape May, NJ. As with the SS Palo Alto, unfortunately the ocean has taken its toll on the ship and she has broken apart. It's only a matter of time before the last of her remains crumble beneath the waves.
[Ref: (1) http://concreteships.org/ships/
(2) David W. Heron wrote a book about the SS Palo Alto, Forever Facing South, The story of the S.S. Palo Alto "The Old Cement Ship" of Seacliff Beach.]
I hope you enjoyed this little bit of maritime history.
Til next time,