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Historic concrete ship S.S. Palo Alto smashed in half by record Calif. storm waves

Waves crash into the wreckage of the WWI-era ship S.S. Palo Alto at Rio Del Mar in Aptos, Calif., on Jan. 21. (Kevin Johnson/Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP)

Mighty storm swells pummeled the California coast over the weekend.

In San Diego, waves swept two women, one fatally, away from shoreline rocks and into the surf. Some 400 miles to the north, the storm took another casualty, a curious artifact of American history. The swells tore the stern off a crumbling but famous boat, a World War I-era tanker named the S.S. Palo Alto. 

Since 1930, the Palo Alto has been a symbol of Santa Cruz County, sitting at the end of a pier that juts from Monterey Bay’s Seacliff Beach. During Saturday’s storm, the waves reached a record height: 34 feet, according to a National Weather Service buoy in the bay, more than a foot taller than the previous record set in 2008. With the tall waves came destruction. The pounding surf snapped a section of the Palo Alto nearest to shore from the rest of the ship.

The boat had an unusual concrete hull, as well as an unusual origin story. As World War I progressed, and civilian and military vessels fell by the hundreds to German submarine torpedoes, ship builders worried about a shortage of steel. In 1917, the Emergency Fleet Corporation was formed under President Woodrow Wilson. The emergency fleet commissioned an order for 24 new ships built out of ferroconcrete. The material, concrete reinforced with steel, was cheaper to produce than steel and more readily available. It was also capable of producing boats that floated. In fact, the French inventor of ferroconcrete, Joseph-Louis Lambot, had created a concrete dinghy a half-century before; his small boat was displayed at the 1855 World’s Fair.

The Emergency Fleet Corporation’s choice for concrete ships was a move, as described in a 1918 issue of the trade journal Concrete, born out of emergency. The year before, a Norwegian engineer had built a 84-foot-long ship with a concrete hull. But larger tankers like the Palo Alto were yet untested. “Good engineering judgment puts the concrete seagoing ship idea on a sound basis,” noted the journal. “But it hasn’t been proved — that’s all.”

The capabilities of U.S. concrete ships would remain unproven during the war. By the time builders completed all 420 feet of the S.S. Palo Alto, at the Naval Shipyard in Oakland, World War I was over.

The Palo Alto did not move from Oakland until 1929, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. On the ship’s first voyage, it was towed to the Sea Cliff beach, where the Cal-Nevada Company scuttled the boat by opening the valves in its hull. It earned the nickname the Cement Boat and became a tourist destination.

In 1930, a pier was constructed to link the ship to the beach. The Cal-Nevada Company installed a heated pool — 54 feet long — as well as a casino and a dance floor. The party on board the S.S. Palo Alto lasted for two years, until its prospects were hit by the twin blows of a severe winter storm and the Great Depression. The state of California purchased the ship, and it became a popular fishing spot. The state closed off public access to the ship in 1950, after years of decay. Despite opening for a few years following a restoration attempt in the 1980s, the ship once again became off-limits. The fishing pier was open to foot traffic during summer 2016 but is now closed for repairs, according to the Parks and Recreation Department.

Despite the repeated pummeling, the Cement Boat remained a touchstone. “There are always people who come back here” after having moved away, John Hibble, director of the local Aptos History Museum, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in February. “Their parents danced on the ship. Some people were little kids when they actually got to go out on the front part of the ship.”

And yet life did not abandon the S.S. Palo Alto completely. Pelicans and other seabirds perched on the ship’s deck, leaving behind streaks of white on the cracked concrete. In the water below, marine mammals like sea lions hunted sea perch and other fish. These fish, in turn, fed upon the algae and other organisms that grew in the shelter of the artificial reef.

The discovery of dead wildlife tarnished the Cement Boat’s environmental legacy in the mid-2000s. Exposed to nearly a century’s worth of the elements, the ship’s tanks had cracked, leaking fuel oil, and the Palo Alto was deemed responsible for the dozens of dead birds that subsequently washed up on nearby beaches.

In 2006, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a $1.7 million cleanup effort. Workers sucked half-a-thousand gallons of gunk from the ship’s cracked tanks. Inside the ship, they found an additional 200 bird bodies and two dead harbor seals, reported the Monterey County Herald.

In the decade since the environmental cleanup, the ship had crumbled further. Winter 2016 storms shoved the ship to the starboard side, reported the Sentinel, and cracked open its rear half.

This year’s weather caused even more damage. “It’s just an unusual January with this active weather,” said National Weather Service forecaster Drew Peterson, according to the Mercury News. “With the Cement Ship, we’re starting to see the ramifications.”

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