Obscura Day 2017! Join our global celebration of exploration and discovery.
May 6

Aptos, California

SS Palo Alto

This concrete ship has had four careers - World War I tanker, floating amusement park, fishing pier, and artificial reef 

The SS Palo Alto was one of three concrete tankers built in California to serve in World War I, but she was late to be finished and the war came to an end before construction did. Without any war duty ahead, the question became: what to do with 6,100 tonnage of concrete shaped like a ship?

By the end of WWI, iron and steel had become scarce, and a few ships were fashioned instead from concrete, intended to work as tankers. There were three such ships built in California, one being the SS Palo Alto. Construction started in Oakland in 1917, and the ship was set to sail a couple of years later – but the war soon ended, and so the Palo Alto needed to find a new job. She sat in the shipyard, unemployed, for the next 10 years until 1929 when an enterprising company from Nevada thought it might make a good entertainment and fishing destination. They bought the ship, found a willing beach town to set up excursions from, and towed it down the coast to Aptos, just a few miles south of Santa Cruz on Monterey Bay.

The excursion idea never really caught on, so the company tried to create a permanent home for their new venture. The ship was positioned just off Seacliff Beach, the hold was opened up, water poured in, and she nestled right down in the sand. The next year an access pier was built out to the ship, and she got a full facelift adding a ballroom and dancefloor, a casino, a café, a 54-foot swimming pool (heated – that Monterey Bay water is cold), and a number of carnival games and booths. The dancing, dining and swimming lasted only another two years, and the company went bankrupt in the wake of the Depression. The ship was stripped bare and turned into a fishing pier.

You used to be able to fish off the pier and the ship, but recent winter storms have blocked access to both. You can only see the wreck from the beach now. The SS Palo Alto has embarked on her fourth career though, and now acts as a different kind of destination. This time it’s the abundant marine life and shorebird populations of Monterey Bay who have the run of the ship. Bring a good zoom lens and you’ll see all kinds of birds.

Update: In early 2017, strong waves broke the ship apart and flipped one of the pieces onto its side. The wreckage is still at the site, but now looks dramatically different than most pictures.

Know Before You Go

at the end of Seacliff State Beach Pier, off Seacliff Drive in Aptos, California

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