The conference room at the Rio Sands Hotel in Rio Del Mar was packed on May 18 with history enthusiasts, eager to learn more about and celebrate an iconic Aptos landmark.
This year marks the S.S. Palo Alto’s 100th anniversary. The concrete ship, built in 1919, has been situated in the water off Seacliff State Beach since January 1930. On May 18, the Aptos History Museum kicked off a series of events planned to celebrate the milestone with a special History Talk.
“We have a lot of amazing things here in Aptos, but not many left from its heyday,” said historian John Hibble. “This ship is the icon of Aptos. When people think of Aptos, they think of the Palo Alto.”
Hibble introduced fellow historian and author Kevin Newhouse, who gave the bulk of the presentation.
“Not many things can celebrate existing for 100 years,” Newhouse said. “This is a very special occasion.”
The history of the S.S. Palo Alto is a unique one—despite its short time on the open ocean. 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 had been experimenting with concrete ship technology.
But the war ended not long after the program began—halting construction and leaving only eight concrete ships complete or in-progress. The S.S. Palo Alto, along with its sister ship the S.S. Peralta, were launched from the U.S. Naval Shipyard in Oakland in 1919.
The Palo Alto made just two journeys. The first was from Oakland to Pier 33 in San Francisco. The second and last was to Aptos in 1930, where it has remained ever since.
In the audience on May 18 was Bruce Porter, whose grandfather was part of the crew who made the voyage. Hibble introduced Porter, who grew up knowing the story of the famous ship.
“This just shows how deeply embedded this ship is in this community,” Hibble stated.
Newhouse went on to detail the ship’s history since coming to Seacliff State Beach, explaining the unfortunate timing of the Seacliff Amusement Corporation’s purchase of the vessel, and their project of making it into a “pleasure ship,” featuring a dance floor, cafe, swimming pool, slot machines and more. Just two years after a successful opening, the ship was hit by storms. This, coupled with the onsetting of the Great Depression, eventually prompted the Seacliff Amusement Corporation to go bankrupt and close in 1932. Eventually the S.S. Palo Alto was sold to the State of California in 1936 for just one dollar.
“Once the ship was here, it endured a lot of ups-and-downs,” Newhouse said. “Mainly due to Mother Nature.”
The vessel would be hit with more storms in 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.
“Even after its final closing [in 2001], the ship remains a huge part of our lives,” Newhouse said. “Honestly, this ship is embedded in my memory as much as my own home.”
Due to rain, the History Walk that was planned to follow the presentation on May 18 was rescheduled—but the Visitor Center remained open for guests. Local band Cement Ship set up to perform in the center, including a song entitled “Let’s Break Apart Together.”
The following day the Cabrillo Symphonic Winds Ensemble held a special concert dedicated to the S.S. Palo Alto at the Crocker Theater. The show also featured the Soquel High School Concert Band and the Cabrillo College Concert Band performing John Nordgren’s original composition entitled “The Cement Ship.”
Festivities continued on June 1 with the official Centennial Celebration of the S.S. Palo Alto, organized by California State Parks and Friends of the Santa Cruz State Parks. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., guests came to Seacliff State Beach and enjoy vintage music, dancing, children’s activities, arts and crafts, history reenactments and more. For information visit thatsmypark.org/events/seacliff-centennial.
“Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Statue of Liberty,” Newhouse said. “And we here in Aptos have the Palo Alto.”