SS Palo Alto

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Palo Alto
Palo Alto on sea trials, on 10 September 1920.
(Naval History and Heritage Command - Photo NH 799)
United States
Name: SS Palo Alto
Namesake: Palo Alto, California
Builder: San Francisco Shipbuilding Company, Oakland, California
Launched: 29 May 1919
Fate: Grounded as a fishing pier at Seacliff Beach in Aptos, California
General characteristics [1]
Type: Design 1100 tanker
Length: 420 ft (130 m)
Beam: 54 ft (16 m)
Depth: 35 ft (11 m)
  • Llewellyn Iron Works 3-cylinder triple expansion steam engine
  • 359 nhp
  • 1 shaft

SS Palo Alto was a concrete ship built as a tanker at the end of World War I. It was built by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company at the U.S. Naval Shipyard in Oakland, California. It was launched on 29 May 1919, too late to see service in the war.[2] Her sister ship was the SS Peralta.


An aerial view of the wreck Palo Alto in 2013.

It was mothballed in Oakland until 1929, when it was bought by the Seacliff Amusement Corporation and towed to Seacliff State Beach in Aptos, California.[3] A pier was built leading to the ship in 1930,[4] and it was sunk in a few feet in the water so that its keel rested on the bottom. There it was refitted as an amusement ship, with amenities including a dance floor, a swimming pool and a café.[5]

The company went bankrupt two years later during the Great Depression, and the ship cracked at the midsection during a winter storm. The State of California purchased the ship,[4] and it was stripped of its fittings and left as a fishing pier. It was a popular site for recreational fishing,[4] but eventually it deteriorated to the point where it was unsafe for this purpose, and it was closed to the public in 1950.[4] Following an attempt at restoration in the 1980s, it reopened for fishing for a few years, then closed again. The fishing pier opened to foot traffic once again in the summer of 2016, but later closed for repairs.

Nicknamed the "Cement Ship",[6] Palo Alto today remains at Seacliff Beach and serves as an artificial reef for marine life. Pelicans and other seabirds perch on the wreck,[4] sea perch and other fish feed on algae that grows in the shelter of the wreck,[4] and sea lions and other marine mammals visit the wreck to feed on the fish.[4]

SS Palo Alto in July 2012 when it was still largely congruent on one axis (click to enlarge).

In the spring of 2005, oil found on wildlife nearly two years earlier, killing dozens of seabirds, was traced back to the ship, whose fuel tanks had cracked and were leaking fuel oil.[4] In September 2006, a clean-up project was started that cost an estimated $1.7 million,[4] approximately the cost of the original construction of the ship in 1919.[citation needed] No oil is known to have spilled directly into the ocean, but wildlife experts believe that birds came into contact with oil by entering the ship's cracked hull while diving underwater for fish;[citation needed] during the clean-up, workers pumped 500 U.S. gallons (416 Imperial gallons; 1,893 liters) of oil from the ship and discovered the carcasses of 200 more birds and two harbor seals inside the wreck.[4]

The ship continued to deteriorate after the clean-up.[4] While it had over the decades been broken into four roughly segmented pieces, winter storms in February 2016 pushed the wreck onto its starboard side and broke its rear half open.[4] On January 21, 2017, another winter storm tore the stern off the ship.[7][4]

See also


  1. ^ Bender, Rob. "S.S. Palo Alto". Retrieved 17 December 2012.
  2. ^ Heron, David W. (2002). Forever Facing South, The story of the S.S. Palo Alto "The Old Cement Ship" of Seacliff Beach (Revised third printing ed.). Santa Cruz, California: Otter B Books. ISBN 0-9617681-3-4.
  3. ^ "Sandy Lydon's Central Coast Secrets - Hooey History". Retrieved 23 January 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Guarino, Ben, "Historic concrete ship S.S. Palo Alto smashed in half by record Calif. storm waves,", January 23, 2017, 5:49 a.m. EST.
  5. ^ Seacliff State Beach USS Palo Alto
  6. ^ "SS Palo Alto (Cement Ship) Through the Years". Santa Cruz Sentinel. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  7. ^ "Cement Ship in Santa Cruz County torn apart by massive waves". San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved 23 January 2017.

External links

  • Media related to SS Palo Alto at Wikimedia Commons
  • Palo Alto information at
  • Palo Alto information at California State Parks website

Coordinates: 36°58′10.75″N 121°54′50.31″W / 36.9696528°N 121.9139750°W / 36.9696528; -121.9139750

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