S.S. Palo Alto reaches centennial

The S.S. Palo Alto, which is celebrating its centennial Saturday, is shown in 2016. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

Celebration set of Saturday

APTOS — Grace Mora, Senior Park Aid at Seacliff State Beach, remembers the first time she saw the S.S. Palo Alto. Her initial reaction was that of confusion.

“At first I didn’t understand the appeal,” she said. “Then I learned its story. It has such a fascinating history and means so much to the community. I’ve grown to love the ship.”

Wednesday marked the 100th anniversary of the construction of the S.S. Palo Alto, dubbed fondly by locals as “The Cement Ship” though it is truly made of concrete. Aptos has been celebrating for weeks—and the main event is this weekend.

State Park Interpreter Joseph Ritchie has been at Seacliff for two years. He said he’s been planning for Saturday’s Cement Ship Centennial event from the first time he walked through the doors of the Visitor’s Center.

“It’s come up on us pretty fast, but it’s always been something in the back of our minds,” Ritchie said. “We’re really excited.”

The history of the S.S. Palo Alto is unique. In 1918, the U.S. government started a building program to replace ships destroyed in World War I. The idea came from a Norwegian engineer who was experimenting with concrete ship technology.

But the war ended soon after the program began—halting construction and leaving only eight concrete ships complete or in-progress.

The S.S. Palo Alto was launched from the U.S. Naval Shipyard in Oakland in 1919. It made two journeys: one from Oakland to Pier 33 in San Francisco, and the other (and last) to Aptos in 1930.

The Aptos History Museum hosted a special History Talk on May 18, led by historians John Hibble and Kevin Newhouse. In the audience was Bruce Porter, whose grandfather R.C. Porter owned the ship in 1929 and sold it to the Seacliff Amusement Corporation; he was on board when the ship was towed to the beach on the morning of Jan. 22, 1930.

“Having Bruce here—it just shows how deeply embedded this ship is in this community,” Hibble said.

Newhouse detailed the ship’s history since coming to Aptos, explaining the unfortunate timing of the Seacliff Amusement Corporation making it into a “pleasure ship,” featuring a dance floor, cafe, swimming pool and slot machines. Just two years after a successful opening, the ship was hit by storms. This, coupled with the Great Depression, caused the project to go bankrupt.

Eventually the S.S. Palo Alto was sold to the State of California in 1936 for just one dollar.

palo alto rp 1930 web

This advertisement ran in a 1930 issues of the Register-Pajaronian. Note how the smokestack was drawn into the photo. — R-P archives/ Courtesy of Seacliff Visitor Center

The vessel was hit with more storms from the late 1950s through the 1970s. In 1983, locals Rose Costa, Ed Nelson and Harry Haney successfully led a group of volunteers in reopening the ship after being shut down for five years.

Saturday’s Cement Ship Centennial event will be held at Seacliff State Beach from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with living history re-enactors, music and dance lessons, a raffle, crafts and games and food. The event is mainly volunteer-led by docents from Seacliff and Friends of the Santa Cruz State Parks.

For Ritchie, the natural deterioration of the Cement Ship — especially the recent shifting of the bow — shouldn’t be seen as entirely negative.

“Things change, things fall apart — don’t have to be sad about it,” he said. “Embrace the history. This is the only concrete ship that has rose to such fame. It’s become a symbol of Aptos, the Monterey Bay — even the Central Coast. And isn’t that great?”

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