What we (and Joe Biden) should know about the disappearing Cement Ship

The cement ship at Seacliff State Beach at sunset
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Almost a football field and a half long, the Cement Ship marked a place and time of high enjoyment, until zapped by the twin forces of Depression and the Pacific. Come back with us 90 years and you can imagine what nature is slowly claiming.

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Wallace

If I had been invited — and I most emphatically was not invited — I would have been there by the side of President Joe Biden at Seacliff when he raised a finger toward the ocean and said, “What in the Sam Hill is that?”

Well, Mr. President, I would say, that is what we call the “Cement Ship,” though it’s actually concrete.

Then, I would wait patiently through a meandering presidential anecdote about how he once got the cement mixture wrong on a fence post he installed back in the ’60s in Delaware. At the first opening, I would then interject with the story of the SS Palo Alto, after which the president would crack, “Well, whaddya know, something older than I am.” The circle around us would erupt in servile, disproportionate laughter.

None of the above happened, except in my daydreams. But I imagine our Cement Ship is exactly the kind of thing that would pique Joe Biden’s interest, just as it has tickled the curiosity of untold legions of tourists, visitors and locals.

The Palo Alto, which passed its centennial birthday a few years back, is entering a new phase of its long and colorful history, thanks to the parade of atmospheric-river storms that recently trampled us all on the California coast. (We might call the storms collectively the “New Year’s Nine.”) The storms took out the pier that connected the boat with the shore, and with the pier gone, the ship looks a bit like a whale frozen in mid breach — at least, the part closest to us.

the cement ship from above
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The California State Parks system will have to make the call on whether the pier is to be rebuilt, and it’s difficult in the storms’ wake to see any justification to do so. A few folks might lament the lost opportunities to fish off the pier. A few others might miss the chance to see the ruins of the ship up close. But mostly, life will go on just fine if the wreckage of the pier is permanently removed and, besides, there are plenty of higher priorities for repair in Seacliff and Rio Del Mar anyway.

But absent its umbilical connection to the mainland, the Palo Alto now carries a new mystique. It has a new look, a new vibe. It now reads more mouldering shipwreck than abandoned party boat. Particularly on the many foggy mornings to come, it will come off even more ghostly. And in that context, remembering the Palo Alto’s real story is more crucial than ever.

The intact cement ship after it was parked off the pier at Seacliff State Beach
The SS Palo Alto existed as a destination nightclub/restaurant for two golden summers in 1930 and ’31 before the twin threats of the Great Depression and Pacific storms shut it all down.
(Via Aptos History Museum)

In its current state, the ship demands a leap of imagination to picture just how posh and dazzling it used to be. Which is exactly why we must continue to retell its story. Without the pier, that story becomes even more fantastical.

The Palo Alto was constructed in 1919, but the most fascinating part of its history is a very short period, the summers of 1930 and ’31, to be exact.

How it got there is a story you might know: It was built to replace ships lost during World War I, and constructed of reinforced concrete because of an ongoing steel shortage at the time. The war was pretty much over by the time the Palo Alto was finished — it was one of only eight such tankers completed at the time. Fast forward a decade and the ship, mothballed up in Benicia, is sold to a company in Santa Cruz County called the Seacliff Amusement Corporation and towed to the spot where it’s been ever since. (In fact, Sunday, Jan. 22, is the 93rd anniversary of the day when the ship first arrived at Seacliff.)

The ship was turned around, the bow pointed out toward the open ocean, and sunk in the sand just offshore. A pier was constructed from the shore to reach the now stationary boat’s stern. That’s when the fun began.

The Palo Alto obviously wasn’t as magnificent as the immense cruise ships you might see today in places like Puerto Vallarta. But for its time, the 435-foot-long ship was pretty impressive. Think one and a half football fields.

ballroom dancing on the SS Palo Alto
The Rainbow Ballroom onboard the SS Palo Alto attracted as many as 3,000 visitors from all over Northern California on its opening night in June 1930.
(Via Aptos History Museum)

The vision was to convert the ship into a kind of offshore pleasure palace with dancing, dinner, gambling and whatever kind of cavorting was popular in the Gatsby age. It was designed to draw people from all around Monterey Bay and beyond for a night of sophisticated adult entertainment. The ship opened its ballroom on June 21, 1930, attracting a crowd of about 3,000 people. A week later, all the ship’s amenities were opened to visitors.

Find a comfortable seat, and let’s go back in our collective imaginations to envision that moment. In those first days of summer, when sunset over the ocean stretches toward 9 p.m., imagine the scarves, the hats and the chic flapper dresses trundling across the newly built pier to the decorated ship. Can you see it?

Remember, this was at the tail end of Prohibition, when booze was contraband. A decade into it, many Americans who enjoyed their occasional adult beverages had figured out ways to adapt to Prohibition’s ever-shifting enforcement. At that time, that meant discreetly carrying a flask to parties, clubs and places like the SS Palo Alto. Legend has it that the flasks containing all that hooch were made of glass, and instead of taking them home, most drinkers would simply toss the empties in the ocean.

“This was where all of the rum-runners brought most of the booze for Northern California,” John Hibble of the Aptos History Museum told me, referring to Seacliff Beach.

On any given beguiling summer night, especially on the weekends, the shore and even the pier itself would be jammed with parked Model Ts and other motor cars. Once you made it onto the ship, you might meet friends (or intriguing strangers) at the enormous Rainbow Ballroom, a stage and dance floor where big bands, usually Ed Rookledge and His Orchestra, would play the day’s hippest tunes. You might make it to the ballroom only after a romantic seafood dinner overlooking the sea.

Also on board were a cafe and other concessions, along with a 54-foot-long swimming pool. There was a kind of midway attraction of games of chance, including bingo and even slot machines. And downstairs, claimed witnesses, was the more serious gambling, where card sharps won or lost money between swigs of bootleg whiskey.

It’s easy to imagine in those heady Jazz-Age days that the Palo Alto was one of the premier night spots and attractions anywhere along the Northern California coast. I mean, if you woke up tomorrow morning in the summer of 1930, wouldn’t you find a way to get out there?

Beachgoers at Seacliff State Beach in 1931 with the SS Palo Alto in the background
The beach at Seacliff in 1931, the last of two summers in which the SS Palo Alto (in the background, right) was a posh party boat, complete with ballroom, restaurant and gambling den.
(Via Aptos History Museum)

Like all cool scenes, the pleasure-boat period at the Palo Alto didn’t last. Whatever cruise-ship hijinks and debauchery went on aboard the old ship took place in a narrow window of two summers, 1930 and ’31. Like the decade of the ’20s itself, the Palo Alto was trapped in a fate of romantic doom. Students of American history will recognize something ominous about those dates. The stock market crash of 1929 triggered the Great Depression, which was ravaging the nation by the early ’30s. Perhaps even the smartly dressed party boys and girls Charleston-ing and foxtrotting in the ship’s ballroom sensed the fleeting moment.

After two golden summers, the company running the ship went bankrupt and the SS Palo Alto quickly became a relic. Yes, the Depression brought the party to a crashing close, but even if it had not, Mother Nature would likely have done the same. In the winter of ’32, after that last summer season, a storm came roaring ashore at Seacliff and cracked the ship’s hull. Concrete wasn’t the ideal shipbuilding material after all. By 1934, the ship had been stripped of its valuables and abandoned to the sea. A couple of years after that, the whole shebang was sold to the state of California.

For one dollar.

The cement ship offshore at Seacliff State Beach
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And then, the Pacific Ocean took control.

See what you missed, Mr. President? If we know anything about you, it’s that you enjoy a good story from the American past. In my daydream, I’m now getting dagger-eyes from your handlers and the Secret Service, but you, sir, are engrossed. You want to hear more.

The Aptos History Museum will host a fundraiser with a presentation on winter storms and the Cement Ship on Feb. 21 at Seascape Golf Club.

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