Almost a century ago, there were big plans for the northern California coastline along Seacliff State Beach. But sometimes, even the grandest of plans can’t hold up to the power of the ocean.
In the 1920s, a group of ambitious businessmen purchased the land at Seacliff and made plans to build an esplanade, pleasure pier, 2000-foot seawall, bathing pavilion, dining hall and dance pavilion, parking lot, and modern beach bungalettes (a type of small mobile home) right on the wave-washed sand. The only part of their plan that worked out long-term is the parking lot.
Seawall Scores Two, Developers Zero
We now know what a futile plan it is to build right on the beach. This volatile landscape can be a wide open stretch of sand in the morning and be entirely underwater by sunset. Waves from just one storm have the power to crumble cliffs that have stood for millennia. Still, the new owners of Seacliff believed their seawall could withstand the relentless force of the ocean. This was perhaps understandable, because Santa Cruz had only mild winters from 1916 to 1923.
Unfortunately, in 1926, almost as soon as construction began on the seawall, a storm caused serious damage. After investing in repairs and reinforcement, another storm the following year wiped out the remainder of the wall.
The seawall was not working, but perhaps there was a different solution?
Sailing to the Rescue (Temporarily)
The developers decided to abandon the seawall idea, because they were quickly running out of funds. Instead, they purchased a surplus concrete oil tanker, the S.S. Palo Alto, to use as an amusement center.
Before the S.S. Palo Alto was anchored at Seacliff, it was part of a fleet of concrete ships built for WWI. Concrete seems an odd choice for a mode of transport that needed to potentially withstand multiple submarine attacks, but steel was scarce and very expensive during the war, so the U.S. decided to experiment with concrete. The U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation invested in a total of 38 concrete ships. Only eight were ever built, and the S.S. Palo Alto wasn’t completed until after the war ended. She made two independent voyages (no towing required) until she was sold to the Seacliff Amusement Corporation in 1929.
The concrete ship was towed to its place just offshore on January 25, 1930. A 630-foot pier was built out to her massive decks, and she was opened to a waiting crowd of 3,000 people on June 21 of that year. That’s not a bad reception for a WWI ship that didn’t even sail until after the war.
As an amusement center, the S.S. Palo Alto had a dance floor, cafe, a 54-foot heated swimming pool, and a casino. She lasted only two summers against the ocean’s powerful waves. A winter storm cracked the brittle hull in 1932.
That same year, the Seacliff Amusement Corporation went bankrupt. The state bought the ship in 1936 for only a dollar but had to invest in multiple costly repairs as the ship battled the elements for the next 42 years. The ship was finally closed to the public in 1978.
Today, the ship is still battered by the surf. Most recently, a storm in mid-January of 2016 caused a new break in the back half of the ship. That pushed the bow skyward as the stern sunk into the waves.
Envisioning how this sinking artifact could have hosted hundreds of beach-goers for a day or evening of entertainment now requires a large stretch of the imagination.
Protect the Oceans
Sea Cliff State Beach is part of California’s statewide program to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). MPAs are a lot like our landlocked state parks except that they extend many miles off our coastline. These “underwater parks” are established in areas that are biologically diverse (lots of different marine species), culturally rich (think sunken ships like the S.S. Palo Alto and buried anthropological treasure), and economically important (fishing and tourism are a big deal to these coastal communities).
However, these special places are threatened by things such as overexploitation, climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, so they now require management to recover. Like state parks, MPAs allow the public to enjoy these natural treasures but with a few ground rules about fishing, boating, and other recreational and commercial activities. There are several different types of MPAs, and each one has its own set of rules. See the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website for details.
Soquel Canyon SMCA captures an entire side-branch of the Monterey Submarine Canyon – from relatively shallow waters at the canyon’s head to very deep waters. The rocky canyon walls and mud-and-sand canyon floor offer ideal habitat for rockfishes including depleted species. It contains communities of fragile deepwater corals and sponges. The area is also an important seabird forage grounds and whale feeding area. Portuguese Ledge State Marine Conservation Area protects important refuge habitat for several overfished deepwater rockfish species and is expected to contribute to the recovery of these species.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the Santa Cruz Marine Protected Areas Beaches Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Collaborative with support from the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Resources Legacy Fund. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- The SS Palo Alto and the Surprising History of Concrete Ships, by Julia Gaudinski. MobileRanger.com website.
- "And Then There Were None: The Seawalls of Seacliff Beach," by John Hibble. Aptos Life, February 2015.
- "Seacliff History. Seacliff Beach General Plan, May 1990." Among documents available at the Aptos History Museum.
- "The Old Concrete Ship of Seacliff Beach," by John Hibble. Among documents available at the Aptos History Museum.