The SS Palo Alto and the Surprising History of Concrete Ships

Many thanks to Archer Koch of MultiRotorCam.com for permission to use of this video.

Concrete Ships: Early Days

The oldest known concrete ship was a dingy built in southern France by Joseph Louis Lambot in 1848 and was featured in the 1855 World’s Fair in France. By 1890 there were concrete barges and small ships being built by the Italian engineer, Carlo Gabellini. Numerous small concrete boats were built in the U.K in the 1910s. The first ocean-going concrete ship was launched from Norway on August 2, 1917 and was built by N.K. Fougner. The 84-foot-long ship, named Namsenfjord, was a great success, and several more small concrete vessels were built.

In 1917 the United States entered WWI and needed to build ships at a time when steel was scarce. The US government invited Fougner to head a study into the feasibility of concrete ships. In April of 1917 President Woodrow Wilson approved the Emergency Fleet program, which approved the construction of 24 concrete ships for the war.

Seeing a business opportunity, W. Leslie Comyn formed the San Francisco Ship Building Company (in Oakland, California) and began constructing concrete ships. Their first ship, the SS Faith, was launched March 18, 1918. They also built the SS Palo Alto for the US Government, which launched May 29, 1918.

Photograph of the SS Faith,  the first ship built of concrete in the United States, soon after launch in 1918. Photo via  Wikimedia Commons. Originally in Popular Mechanics Magazine, July 1918.
Photograph of the SS Faith, the first ship built of concrete in the United States, soon after launch in 1918. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Originally in Popular Mechanics Magazine, July 1918.

Too Late for the Party

WWI ended on November 11, 1918. Only 12 ships were under construction and none of them had been launched and commissioned (actually put into service) in time to be of service in WWI. The SS Palo Alto, although launched, was not commissioned until October 20, 1920. It had its first and only voyage under its own (steam) power on January 2, 1921. The same year it was towed to Benicia, California and mothballed.

In 1930 the SS Palo Alto was towed to Seacliff State Beach by the Seacliff Amusement Corporation and sunk a few feet into the water. A dance floor, swimming pool, and a café were added transforming the SS Palo Alto into an amusement ship for two years until, with the help of the Great Depression, the company went bankrupt. Shortly thereafter, the ship cracked at the midsection during a winter storm. In 1936 the State of California purchased the ship for $1 and made it part of Seacliff State Beach. The foredeck of the ship was closed to the public in 1958, but the afterdeck is closest to the beach and remained open until at least the 1970s and possibly the mid-1980s, when access was completely closed off for safety reasons. Today she serves as an artificial reef for marine life.

The SS Palo Alto at sunset, December 31, 2007. Photo by Nicholas Mitchell.
The SS Palo Alto at sunset, December 31, 2007. Photo by Nicholas Mitchell.

In spring of 2005 oil found on wildlife nearly two years earlier was traced back to the ship. A large cleanup project was started at a cost of $1.7 million. No oil is known to have spilled into the ocean. Wildlife experts think the birds came into contact with oil by diving into the cracked hull while fishing.

Concrete Ships: Less than Ideal

The basic problem with concrete ships is that they require a very thick hull to be as strong as a steel ship. Ships built for WWI had hulls up to 6 inches thick and required a lot of fuel to move around. Since wet concrete sags, they are also tricky to build. Perhaps more importantly for warships, they sink quickly if the hull is breached. The sailors of WWI often called them “floating tombstones” and generally did not like to serve on them.

When WWII came about, steel was once again in short supply and the US Government again authorized the construction of 24 concrete ships as well as barges for transporting supplies. Construction began in 1943. Thanks to innovations in cement mixing and materials, this round of ships was much stronger than the previous fleet. Nevertheless, after the war, the concrete ships were generally gotten rid of — quickly. Nine were sunk in shallow water in Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Kiptopeke Beach, Virginia in 1948 to create a breakwater for the local ferries. For a video explaining the history of this breakwater, click here. Nine more ships were used to create a floating breakwater on the Malaspina Strait in the city of Powell River in British Columbia, Canada.

Sunset at Kiptopeke Beach, Virgina. Photo by  VAStateParksStaff.
Sunset over two of the WWII era ships sunk in shallow water off of Kiptopeke Beach, Virginia. Photo by VAStateParksStaff.

Though some small boats are made of concrete today, WWII was the end of large-scale concrete ship building.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

Find out more history of the S.S Palo Alto and Seacliff State Beach as part of our 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.

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Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
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  1. Sources Used

    • A brief History of Concrete Ships. ConcreteShips.org Website. http://www.concreteships.org/history/
    • Floating Tombstones. The UnMuseum.Org Website. http://www.unmuseum.org/concrete.htm
    • Kiptopeke’s Concrete Ships; A Long Journey to Obscurity.Abandoned Country Website. http://www.abandonedcountry.com/2013/05/06/kiptopekes-concrete-ships-a-long-journey-to-obscurity/
    • Personal communication with Lorena DeWild, Santa Cruz County Resident, January, 22, 2014.
    • Personal communication with Sandy Lydon, Historian Emeritus, Cabrillo College, Aptos, January, 22, 2014.
    • Ships of concrete long sunk off the Eastern Shore. Diane Tennant, The Virginian-Pilot. October 9, 2011. http://hamptonroads.com/2011/10/ships-concrete-long-sunk-eastern-shore#
    • SS Palo Alto. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Palo_Alto
    • What's the SS Palo Alto Really Made of? Sandy Lydon's Hooey History. http://www.sandylydon.com/hoo_1.html

About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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8 Comments

  1. Robert R Bullard, PE

    I built concrete vessels in the early 1970’s. Back then, the concrete term was “ferrocement”. I am aware of a single vessel, a 20 meter long houseboat, that is still afloat. Today, the “concrete” technology has advanced to the point where the term is “thin-shelled concrete laminate” and this technology could be used to construct vessels with lifespans of hundreds of years and at unit displacement weights not much more than that of steel when the vessel size becomes large to something on the order of an aircraft carrier or super tanker. (A cubic unit of corrosion resistant reinforcing steel and carbon fiber reinforced thin-shell laminate weighs about one-third the same cubic unit of steel.)

    Reply
    1. Ranger Gaudinski

      Thanks Robert Bullard for sharing your first hand knowledge with building ferrocement vessels. They still do not build really large ships -like aircraft carriers- with “thin-shelled concrete laminate”?

      Reply
  2. Thomas Snell

    I would invite you to check out my Facebook page on the S.V. Onaygorah. She was a 130 foot long barque made of ferrocement. Originally christened CGS Concretia. There you can find a brief history of the vessel together with a compilation of pictures.

    Reply
      1. Robert

        My grandfather served on one of the concrete ships in ww1 and was caught in a huge storm at sea, had yo ho on deck to lash down the ropes that held the mules being shipped to Europe
        Was almost washed overboard by A wave but caught the lifeline with two fingers saved himself

        Reply
  3. Nancie

    Hello- I was hoping to locate the movie about the Palo Alto that is shown in the Seacliif museum. Any idea where I might find it?

    Reply
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