Ship of Stone
By Margaret Graham Neeson, 91 years young, Marine Parts Express
There are more than eight state beach parks dotted along the curve of California’s Monterey Bay, and each of them has some particular claim to distinction. Natural Bridges Beach, for example, is noted for its surf-carved sandstone arches; Twin Lakes for its two lagoons; Sunset for its birds and wild flowers. But the most popular beach of all is Seacliff, eight miles east of Santa Cruz, known and loved for its old concrete ship, the Palo Alto.
The beach itself has many attractions. It is two sandy miles long, a quarter of a mile wide, with cypress-clad protecting bluffs. The shore slopes gradually toward the water and, as the surf is gentle, the swimming hazards are few. There are over a hundred picnic units, mostly sheltered, and camping space for twenty-five trailers. There is a lunch counter, ranger station, restrooms. The only houses visible are at a distance. To the west stretches the vast blue emptiness of the Pacific Ocean.
A perfect beach, even without the old ship. But with it . . . well, each year more than a million visitors come to Seacliff and, according to park authorities, just about all of them go down and examined the Palo Alto.
No longer is it permitted to board the ship (much to the dismay of the local fishermen who used her as a fish pier), but the remains of the once mighty ship can still be seen. According to the park’s information sheet, the Palo Alto is 435 feet long and weighs 7,500 tons. She was one of two cement ships built in the Oakland Estuary at the end of the first World War. They were intended as supply ships but were not complete by the war’s end. The Peralta, the Palo Alto’s sister ship, saw some use as a reduction boat for the fishing industry along the West Coast before she broke up, years ago, on some rocks off the Aleutians, but the Palo Alto never put to sea.
Instead, she was outfitted, then left to rot in the estuary; next, the government stripped her and sold her to a company intending to convert her into an amusement boat and fishing pier. She was towed to Seacliff and lined up with the pier then under construction. Her seacocks were opened, her holds were pumped full of sand and water, and slowly she came to rest on the ocean’s sandstone bottom. Nor has she moved since. The occasional large wave has caused her to rock slightly, and successive storms have broken her in two and then brought the pieces back together again. Her bow is now the home of the sandpipers, sea gulls, and cormorants.
The Palo Alto is but a small section of an odd chapter in the history of American ships. Back in early 1918, when the country was patriotically anxious to build America “a bridge of ships,” one of the more exciting ideas was to build “ships of stone.”
Translated, this meant ships of reinforced concrete or cement. They were constructed of reinforcing steel rods crisscrossed in close-knit layers and held in place by the mass of cement. These ships were equipped as were their wooden and steel counterparts, which, however, they outweighed by some hundreds of tons. They were given a waterproof coating inside and out.
Their construction was not a brand new idea, for cement ships had been tried in Europe, especially Norway, and, on a small scale, in this country. Also known were concrete barges, pontoons, and bridges. But supporters of the program argued that such construction would utilize skills not fully employed in the war effort; that such ships would be cheaper; and that they would be built more quickly.
As it worked out, none of these things proved true, and the whole idea was a costly mistake. Of the forty-two Faith Class ships contracted (a smaller 268-foot ship), only fourteen were eventually built and none of these got into the war or even saw much sea duty. The larger Palo Alto class, as suggested by Charles M. Schwab, then director general of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, shared much the same fate. It wasn’t until World War II that sea-going barges and ships and lighters of concrete actually saw true war and sea service.
In the early 1930s the park system took over Seacliff Beach. The amusement boat idea, having enjoyed a brief popularity, had by then failed, and they acquired the old cement ship, too. At various times there have been moves afoot to repair the forward half of the vessel and reopen it to the public. On any good day in the summer the extra space is really needed, as the crowd swarms over the cement docks.
And what a crowd! Of all ages and shapes, sizes and colors! There are fishermen, some lazy, some energetic, but none catching too many fish even though the park people say the “water filled holds of the Palo Alto are the habitat of many forms of marine life.” There are the children, peering down into the wire covered hold or into the jagged gap where once the engine purred and now the waves crash, rescuing cokes from idle bollards. There are the lovers, clad in the briefest of bathing suits, listening to music over a transistor radio and gazing sentimentally at the twisted steel rods showing through the broken concrete, the shattered railings, the rusty anchor fittings, windlass, and chains. There are the curious, examining the park display of pictures showing the ship when she was first launched, and then as an amusement boat with a dance floor on her main deck, a café in her superstructure, carnival concessions on her after deck. There are the skin divers, warned by signs “to stay clear of the pier pilings and the ship” because “they are covered with barnacles which can cause painful injuries.”
Undeniably, whether aground or afloat, there is a charm to the old vessel that not many can resist. Visitors will keep coming to Seacliff Beach and to the Palo Alto as long as the two exist.
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March 24, 2010 / JD Neeson / 0
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Margaret Graham Neeeson
Margaret Graham Neeson
Marine Parts Express