President Joe Biden visited Santa Cruz County’s storm-damaged areas on Thursday, including Seacliff State Beach near the Cement Ship, which appears to have sunk mostly beneath the tides. Many of us who grew up with the mysterious and wonderful Seacliff Cement Ship, have often puzzled over its existence, fed by rumors and speculation. Was it a pier in the shape of a ship, or a ship made into a pier? And why is it named Palo Alto? My late friend David W. Heron did the definitive study of the late Cement Ship, in his 1991 book “Forever Facing South.”
Because neutral Norway had lost half its merchant fleet during World War I, Norway ordered three cement ships in March 1917, from Nicolay Fougner, who’d patented the cement ship process in 1912. The US entered the war a week later, facing steel shortages . Fougner’s brother in New York proposed that the US government could leave steel supplies to the war effort if they made supply ships of reinforced concrete. Many were skeptical of ships being one-part cement, three-fourth parts sand, and one and one-fourth parts gravel, which they dubbed “stone ships.”
Yet Fougner’s success impressed San Franciscan Wm. Comyn, who didn’t wait for government contracts. In September 1917 Comyn formed a company in Redwood City, and in 73 days built America’s first cement ship named “Faith,” a 320-foot vessel composed of Davenport cement. Faith sailed widely: to Vancouver, Hawaii, Chile, the Panama Canal and New York City, promoting its advantages as being lower cost, good stability, well insulated, easy to repair, plus fire-and-corrosion proof.
On April 12, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress gave approval to build 38 emergency fleet concrete ships of 7,500 tons each, with a staff of 8,000. Part of the contract was awarded to Comyn’s company. In record time of 120 days, the world’s largest cement ship (434 feet long) was constructed, made of Santa Cruz cement and substituting puffed brick for half of the gravel to reduce weight. The ship cost $1.5 million, with walls 4 inches thick, floors 5 inches thick, braced by 2-foot beams at 4-foot intervals. The ship included a 2,800 horsepower steam engine, turning an 11-ton bronze propeller 15 feet in diameter, a 15-ton rudder, and decks of Norwegian ash. Her 14 water-tight oil compartments had a combined capacity of three million gallons.
When slid sideways down her launching platform, skeptics that a “stone ship” couldn’t float feared she would submerge, and applauded when she didn’t. Yet the engineers had confidence her airtight buoyancy compartments were designed to keep her afloat even if the ship was broken.
Built on Alameda Island and named for the college town of Palo Alto, its first pouring of concrete commenced on Jan. 20, 1919, and the final pour was completed two weeks later. After that came 106 days of curing, removing forms, finishing and painting a black hull, red trim, white wheelhouse and yellow masts. It was launched on May 29, 1919. That day is bettered remembered for a solar eclipse off the coast of Africa, observed by Arthur Eddington, which would ultimately confirm Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The 120 days was record time and cost for construction of a ship of this size.
But the first pouring occurred two months after the Armistice (cease-fire) was signed Nov. 11, 1918, and two days after the Jan. 18, 1919, opening of the Paris Peace Conference. This was also the third wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic, with 101 flu deaths in San Francisco during the first five days of the year. Only eight of the 38 concrete ships were made. So it was ill-timed for the uses of war but well-timed to always be a ship of peace.
The Palo Alto was commissioned in October 1920, but that month the concrete ship “Cape Fear” collided with a freighter and “shattered like a teacup,” sinking in three minutes. Some started referring to them as the “crockery fleet.” The Palo Alto steamed from Alameda to Hunter’s Point dry docks on Jan. 2, 1921, then on Jan. 24, to Pier 33 on the Embarcadero to attract buyers. But the only offer was by someone who wanted the Palo Alto and the Peralta to sink for breakwaters. The offer was declined, as these were new ships and still seaworthy. The Palo Alto sat at anchor in Oakland, then with the Benicia Mothball Fleet, until finally sold for the surplus scrap price of $18,750 on Dec. 22, 1924. This was after the new owners agreed to remove the valuable machinery. They only wanted the ship as an oil-storage barge, but that business failed to materialize, and the ship languished in San Francisco Bay.
The Seacliff Amusement Corporation was formed in Nevada in the autumn of 1929. The stockholders had all survived the Oct. 28, 1929, stock market crash, borrowing from the Calavada Investment Co., to purchase the Palo Alto for $28,000. Investor’s wife Gladys Erb recalled that the group originally intended to locate an amusement-pier concrete ship in Santa Cruz, either north of Lighthouse Point, or in Seabright, but no adequate land was available. While Seacliff and Rio Del Mar were rather remote, developers had hoped to establish a luxury resort and golf club for the rich.
With a tugboat for a motor, the stockholders rode their ship to Seacliff, but it wasn’t the luxury liner experience they had hoped. Without its heavy motor, the ship was top-heavy, listing from side to side. They arrived Jan. 21, 1930, maneuvered the ship in line with their uncompleted pier, then opened her seacocks in the boiler room, and she settled to the sea floor. Then the investors built up the ship several stories, first opening in a June 1930 preview.
A giant neon sign was erected at the Santa Cruz-Watsonville Highway turn-off, for “The Ship.” There were parking spaces along the ship’s wooden pier, or visitors could take a round-trip ferry boat from the Santa Cruz Wharf twice a day. The Palo Alto’s masts were decorated with strings of pennants beaconing in the breeze.
From the wooden pier, one entered the ship’s penny arcade, redolent with the aroma of hot dogs and popcorn. It was filled with booth games, arcade amusements, slot machines, and glass cases full of wonderful prizes. At midships, the former engine room was turned into an indoor swimming pool. Then came the Rain-Bow Ballroom, 54 feet wide with tall windows, and a 10-piece house orchestra conducted by Ed Rookledge. Upstairs was “The Ship Restaurant & Fish Palace,” with views of the water, and no views of the booze, allegedly hidden away in secret compartments and smoke-filled rooms in the bowels of the Prohibition Era ship. Plans were made for a hotel of 100 staterooms, plus some luxury parlors.
While most of the few concrete ships in the world had become oil tankers or been sunk for reefs, the Palo Alto had become a novelty as a pleasure palace. The wildly successful attraction was reputed to have drawn some celebrity guests, among whom Gladys Erb recalled, was Clark Gable. In 1931, part of Seacliff Beach was acquired by the state of California, as the nation headed into the depths of the Great Depression in 1932.
The ocean can be relentless in the Seacliff/Rio Del Mar area, having previously taken out a one-year-old seawall installed by the former owners. In the winter of 1932, a pounding winter storm cracked the hull amidships. The crack was likely caused by the added buildings above deck on a top-heavy structure, with the sandy-bottom shifting in the tidal surge to produce uneven settling. Sadly, it closed the attraction, with Calavada Investment Corp. buying it for $10,000. Construction of the Aptos Beach Inn in 1932 became a way to replace the former attraction with a new quality attraction, as a popular restaurant and ballroom.
In 1934, wrecker HR Lord bought the rights to strip the ship of anything of value, not just its contents, but removing all the buildings added above decks, and even the wooden decking itself. In 1936 the state of California bought the ship and pier for $1. Since that time, the ship was used as a fishing pier, with the old wheelhouse at first used as a bait and tackle shop. Rental boats were stored on deck, and lowered over the side by crane.
For years after, the ship would sigh from winds and waves, as it remembered its all-too-brief golden age, which, like the Titanic, was a time of elegance and melancholy. The masts were cut down in 1959, then a 1963 winter storm broke the hull at its 1932 crack, and the prow was detached. Storms continued to batter the ship until a 1978 storm closes the ship, and the state park considered a $3 million demolition. Then the storm of 1980 closed the wooden pier. To the rescue came fishers Rose Costa and Harry Haney, who formed “SOS–Save Our Ship,” a grass-roots group that made sufficient repairs to reopen the pier and ship in 1983.
The shipwreck portion of its history began when the ship was closed to visitors in 2016, followed by a 2017 El Niño storm that tossed another portion of the hull on its side. And now the storm of 2023 leaves a ravaged collection of parts, as the twinkling palace of our memories, sinks beneath the pounding waves of a relentless shore.