It’s the end of an era as Seacliff pier demolition commences

Demolition of the pier at Seacliff State Beach underway
January’s storm surge swallowed the end of the pier closest to the SS Palo Alto, aka the Cement Ship.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

This week, Granite Construction began to demolish the pier at Seacliff State Beach, which has connected the shore to the SS Palo Alto for nearly 100 years. While many are sad to see the structure go, California State Parks staff is taking the opportunity to teach the public about the effects of climate change on the Rio Del Mar coastline.

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The pier at Seacliff State Beach has stood for nearly a century. But in just six short weeks, it will officially be a thing of the past.

This week, crews from Granite Construction began preparing to dismantle the iconic pier, which was damaged in storms this January.

Loaders rolled through a closed path, hauling piles of logs and driftwood from the work site before the demolition was expected to fully get underway later this week.

Half of the pier was destroyed, with broken, uneven planks jutting out into the ocean as if a Lovecraftian creature had bitten off half of the pier. Farther back toward the sand, the lifeguard tower had begun to sink into a cratering portion of the planks of the crumbling pier. It looked as though it could fall through and onto the beach any second.

After continuous strong waves battered the pier during January’s first round of atmospheric rivers, California State Parks announced in mid-February that the pier was deemed irreparable and would have to be removed.

The work officially marks the end of the pier’s near 100-year lifespan.

“I remember going on the ship with my father and fishing, and after working here in the Santa Cruz district for 20 years, it’s sad to see it go,” said State Parks Peace Officer Joe Walters. “But on the public safety side, it needs to go.”

Although the demolition will require quite a bit of heavy machinery such as excavators, loaders, bulldozers and a crane, the process to remove the pier is fairly straightforward.

Given that half of the pier was lopped off by the rough seas, crews will use chainsaws to divide the remaining planks into smaller sections, which the crane will then lift off of the pilings — vertical wooden posts that hold the pier up. Removing the pilings, though, will take a few more steps.

Some of those pilings are positioned more than 100 feet into the ground, so removing them entirely is not possible. Instead, crews will dig into the sand and cut the pilings down as much as they can, allowing workers to use the sand to cover up the remaining sections. As spring and summer draw closer, Walters explained, more sand will begin to accumulate on the shore, naturally helping to cover the remaining pilings.

Crews also removed benches from the pier and began to assess the integrity of the lifeguard tower. Should the tower be deemed usable, you can expect to see it at any one of the beaches in the Santa Cruz State Parks district.

“We’re always in need of more towers for lifeguards during the busy season,” said Walters.

The storms have dramatically altered the landscape all along the Seacliff State Beach’s 1.8-mile coastline. Broken branches and huge logs are scattered all across the beach at Rio Del Mar. The nearly endless deluge throughout this winter has taken a toll on the park and beach, saturating hills and destroying the seawall, prompting the park to close the campgrounds to the northwest of the pier for the rest of the year.

But the dismantling of the pier marks the most culturally significant change at Seacliff State Beach thus far.

Almost a football field and a half long, the Cement Ship marked a place and time of high enjoyment, until zapped by the...

Since 1930, the pier allowed the public to access the SS Palo Alto — aka the Cement Ship — just off the Seacliff coastline. The pier and ship were once bustling hubs of recreation and nightlife. Crowds from up and down the coast flocked to the pier to take advantage of the ship’s restaurants, pool, casino and more. Even after those days were over, the pier remained a popular scenic viewpoint for the Rio Del Mar coastline and a great fishing spot.

After the demolition work, the beach will appear as though no structure ever stood there. “The whole park will transition significantly. We’ve had campers that come here yearly, and have been for generations,” said State Parks Senior Interpretive Aide Paul Karz. “This is not just connected to the folks in Santa Cruz County, but to people from all over the state.”

But while it might be the end of an era at Seacliff State Beach, for State Parks workers, it’s an opportunity to learn, said Karz.

“We have school groups that come down here who would go to the fossil wall and brush for them, but now, they can come here to learn about sea-level rise and the impact it has on our parks,” he said. “One of the activities we’re doing right now is having the kids design their own Seacliff State Beach to make it more climate change-resilient.

“We’re using this as a learning moment, and trying to make sure that folks around us know what the environment is doing to our beaches.”

Walters said that for the foreseeable future, nothing will be built in place of the pier. However, that absence could unearth some new perspectives in itself.

“Once that pier is gone, that ship is going to look a lot bigger out there,” said Walters.