Monday, July 11, 2011

Out West: Cement Ships and Dancing on the Beach

Summer in New York always makes me nostalgic for California, a land of heat, but not humidity. When I lived there, it was also a land of sparsely populated beaches that I didn't have to take multiple trains to reach and Mexican food that would make you cry. There isn't a Coney Island out there, and west coast pizza is a joke, but there is Venice Beach, inexpensive produce, and sunsets over the water. Moving on.

Years ago a friend and I were driving up the coast and we spotted this:

Photo by Smo

Through the magic of social networking, my friend Jake identified it for me after I'd posted it on facebook. A cartographer, he was also nice enough to provide a map.

It is the SS Palo Alto, a cement ship joined to the Seacliff Beach pier, off the central coast of California. Constructed out of reinforced cement as an alternative to steel and iron, the SS Palo Alto was built just after WWI, and launched on May 29, 1919. She laid at anchor in Oakland until 1924, then was sold as surplus. In the late 1920s the ship was purchased by the Seacliff Amusement Corporation (or, Cal-Nevada Company, depending on the source) and towed to its present location, off the shore of Aptos, California. The ship was then retrofitted as an event space with a dance floor, restaurant, hotel, and other amenities, and a pier was built leading out to it from the shore. A life-long resident of the Golden Coast, Jake told me that his grandmother remembers attending dances and other social events on the ship during this time. That partially explains why the pier itself is so much wider than most other CA piers. More space besides the water, for the party to spill over from the boat. . . .

Following several storms that caused damage to the ship's hull, investors cut their losses and sold the SS Palo Alto and surrounding beachfront property to the State of California in February 1936 for $1.00.

Though closed to the public since the 1930s, the ship is part of a state park and no doubt serves as a reef of sorts for the local ocean life. In 2004, after numerous sightings of oil-streaked fowl, officials and environmentalists launched an investigation of the ships' steel tanks. After finding an oil leak, a salvage company was brought in, the spill cleaned up, and the ship repaired. The cleanup effort was part of a larger effort along the west coast to examine sunken vessels and their potential impact on the environment.


  1. Thanks for the Cali post - we knew you'd come back to us

  2. I'm only physically distant from the Golden State (caps!). I'll collect more post ideas next time I'm back in October :)

  3. been there too... ahh, so peaceful to just watch the waves flicker at the edge of it's old hull... amazing spectacle, I will never forget!


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