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S.S. Palo Alto, Seacliff State Beach, Aptos, California, 2012

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What's the S.S. Palo Alto really made of?

The History Dude is certain that he's swimming against the current on this one, but it is annoying to hear the phrase "cement ship" when describing the S.S. Palo Alto that has been beached at Aptos since 1930. The phrase "cement ship" is wonderfully alliterative and easy to say, but it is incorrect when describing that particular ship.

The S.S. Palo Alto is a CONCRETE SHIP!

(Forgive my shouting…)

Cement is the powdered binding agent that, when mixed with water and aggregate forms concrete. Cement was one of the ingredients that went into making the concrete that formed the hull of the S.S. Palo Alto.


Some sacks of cement.






A concrete sculpture at Davenport, the place where they make cement.








The S.S. Palo Alto during her days as an oceanside amusement center.

When the mixture of cement, aggregate and water dries, it becomes concrete.

Why did they make a ship out of concrete?

The S.S. Palo Alto was an oil tanker built during World War I on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The loss of many ships to German submarines and the high price of steel combined to make concrete ships feasible. Despite the fact that the construction of the ship went very quickly, World War I ended before the S.S. Palo Alto could be put into service.

The S.S. Palo Alto's concrete recipe.

The ship was made from cement manufactured in the Santa Cruz Portland Cement company plant in Davenport. The specifications:
1 part Portland cement
2 parts aggregate (1/3 sand; 2/3 gravel)
1 part water

The S.S. Palo Alto Vital Statistics

Date of commission: October 1920
Length: 434 feet
Power: 2,800 horsepower steam engine
Tonnage: 6,144 tons
Capacity: 1,300,000 gallons of oil
Original cost of construction: $1,500,000
Original owner: United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation.

In January 1930 the ship was purchased by a corporation intending to use her as the focal point of their coastal development known as Seacliff. Their timing was very bad, however, and the ever-tightening tentacles of the Great Depression eventually strangled that plan and in 1932 the company collapsed. In 1936 the State of California purchased the ship for $1 and added it to Seacliff State Beach.

Periodic storms have hammered the ship and the pier, but despite her trials and tribulations, the S.S. Palo Alto appears to be moving through the waves even though she's going absolutely nowhere.

Important dates in the history of the S.S. Palo Alto

1918 – May 19 – ship was christened and launched at Alameda
1918 - November 11– Armistice signed ending World War I
1920 – October 20 – ship is commissioned
1921 – January 2 – First and only voyage under power across San Francisco Bay
1921 - Was towed to moth ball berth at Benicia
1924 - November - Sold for $18,750 to Oliver J. Colson Co., for oil storage
Later sold to Oakland machinery dealer, R.C. Porter
1929 – Sold to Seacliff Amusement Corporation for unknown amount of $
1929 – October 29 – Stock Market Crash
1930 - January 21-22 – Towed from Oakland to Seacliff
1930 - January 25 – Intentionally sunk off the end of pier at Seacliff
1930 - June 21 – Grand opening
1931-32 – Winter storms crack the ship's hull.
1932 – August – First parcel of beach property acquired by State of California
1936 – February 12 – State of California purchases S.S. Palo Alto for $1.00.
1958 - Foredeck of ship made off-limits to the public
1959 - Ship's masts are cut down.

Final bit of information that will amaze your friends:
What do the initials S.S. stand for in the name of the ship? SteamShip.

Best source of information on the S.S. Palo Alto:
David W. Heron. Forever Facing South: The Story of the S.S. Palo Alto, 1991, Otter B. Press, Santa Cruz. (With a forward by the History Dude.)

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