As mentioned, the ship was towed to Seacliff Beach in January 1930 and by June the ship and pier were ready to open. The grand opening was on June 21, 1930. A neon sign at the top of the bluff at Seacliff simply read The Ship. Thousands dined at the Fish Palace, with its spectacular ocean view on three sides. The Rainbow Ballroom with a white ash dance floor 156-foot long and 54-foot-wide covered most of the main deck; large windows overlooked the bay. A café was found in the superstructure of the ship, a 4-foot deep heated swimming pool was located mid-ship, and carnival-type concessions were found on the afterdeck. Opening night saw several hundred people spend the night dancing to the music of Ed Rookledge’s 10-piece orchestra. Others played bingo in the amusement arcade. The ship soon became a popular site, families would visit during the day while nighttime would see ballroom dancing and big bands. Rumors still exist of illegal liquor and gambling.
However, the previous fall (October 29, 1929) had seen the Stock Market Crash and soon the Great Depression had arrived in force. Business declined and then a wicked winter storm in 1931-32 cracked the hull of the ship. As is often the case with decreased revenue and increased costs profit disappeared; later that year the company filed for bankruptcy. In August of 1932 the beach was acquired by the state for a new Seacliff State Beach. The pier and ship sat closed but by 1934 salvageable fixtures were removed from the Palo Alto and then the ship and pier were opened to anglers. The unusual “Cement Ship” that was designed for war, but became a seaside amusement center, had become the home base for local pier rats and an actual home for the creatures of the sea. In February of 1936 the State purchased the ship for $1 and added it to the State Beach.
Seacliff State Park… where the beach affords fine surf bathing and clamming. At the end of a pier stands an old hulk, one of the concrete ships built during the World War, yawns in the hull—and signs reading “Danger” are numerous—fishermen cast their lines from the prow (10¢ charge) in serene indifference.
—California, A Guide To the Golden State, Federal Writers Project, Works Progress Administration, 1939
In 1948 Highway 1 was constructed bring additional visitors to the area while the pier and shop gained a loyal group of anglers. For a period of time the ship even had a bait shop— Creffield’s Bait Stand that was located in the in stern cabin in the early ‘50s.
Aptos—Located on Monterey Bay nine miles east of Santa Cruz… This is a resort region with much interest in sport fishing on the bay. The beach area was established as a state park in 1933. The novel feature is the concrete hull of a ship which was grounded in 1927 on the rocks off the beach. A wooden pier was built out to the ship so that the deck serves as a sport fishing wharf. The park is so well patronized that parking space for a car is at a premium.
There has been no record of landings of commercial fish in the last two or three decades but 60 years ago (late 1880’s) after the coming of the railroad, Aptos ranked third of the fishing ports of the county. Rail shipments of fish went to San Francisco from this port. Still later, local Pismo clams were peddled to nearby towns and from stands along the highway.
—W. L. Scofield, Fish Bulletin No. 96, California Fishing Ports, State of California Department of Fish and Game, 1954
Damage from winter storms has been a frequent companion of the ship and pier as has steady repair. Because of damage, and danger, in 1958 the foredeck of ship was made off-limits to the public; the next year the ship’s masts were cut down. In 1963 cracks that had already developed in the hull turned into a complete break causing even more sections to be cordoned off from the public.
Huge El Nino storms in the winter of 1982-83 damaged the ship even more just as they had many piers along the coast. The ship was now cracked while a mess of twisted wire littered the deck of the ship; gates blocked entrance onto the ship from the pier. Local angler Rose Costa worked hard for many years before her death (in 1999) to see the ship refurbished but there just never was enough money. The Palo Alto was closed to all foot traffic in 1999.
The pier was closed during 2003 following winter storms in November of 2002 that knocked out 32 pilings. The damage to planks and piling necessitated a $311,000 repair, which included new “environmentally safe” pilings made out of wood encapsulated with plastic polymer. (The older-style wooden pilings, typically treated with creosote, are no longer considered to be ocean-friendly.)
New problems arose following a March 2005 storm that tore out three pilings and a pile cap (a 40-foot-long wooden beam that sits atop the pilings). The damage caused the closing of the key fishing section of the pier—the final third—and cost another $50,000.
A different type of problem caused a closure in September and October of 2006. The problem was an oil leakage that cost $1.7 million to correct. In 2004 park officials had first noticed seabirds washing up on the beach covered in oil. By 2006 more than 50 of the birds, including cormorants and pelicans, were found dead and an investigation began as to the source of the oil.
After ruling out natural seeps and illegal polluters, the state began to investigate the Palo Alto that in 75 years had never given off a hint of oil. However, sample of the oil on the birds was sent to state labs and the chemical fingerprints pointed toward fuel oil aboard the ship. Further investigation revealed a newly fractured 18-by-42-inch section on the surface of the front deck. The opening being used by birds to enter the ship led to lower level fuel tanks and the tanks, 30 feet below the deck, were apparently starting to break apart just as is the ship itself.
Fixing the problem required the work of a 12-person salvage who spent 40 days removing approximately 500 gallons of oil, sludge, tar and black sand from the interior of the ship (as well as two dead harbor seals and about 200 birds). No one knows for sure but it was speculated that the oil could have dated as far back as 1919 when the Palo Alto made its initial sea trials. And interestingly, the private contractors who performed the cleanup, Titan Salvage, is a subsidiary of Crowly Maritime, the Oakland firm whose tugboat had towed the Palo Alto down to Seacliff in 1929. After removing the materials, the opening was enlarged to allow even more animals to enter the now safe interior of the ship.
Each year’s storms are a challenge and all wonder how long the ship can survive. State rangers venture out in calm conditions and string wires to try to keep the ship together; it’s a stopgap measure and most admit it. Today the ship serves mainly as a reef to attract fish to the area and perhaps help out the fishermen leaning out from the pier. The ships interior has created an ecosystem rich with a plethora of creatures and many would like to see the pier extended out around the ship. Park officials say they too would like to see that happen but the question is always one of money and there never seems to be enough.
Seacliff State Beach Pier Facts
Hours: Open 24 hours although the entrance station to the park is maintained only during daylight hours, 7 A.M. to 10 P.M.
Facilities: Parking and restrooms are near the front of the pier. On the pier are fish cleaning facilities and a few benches. Bait and tackle (mainly frozen bait) is available at the snack bar near the entrance to the pier; it is open 9-5. Since the pier is located inside the state park, the entrance fee of $8 covers the parking fee. A fun place to take the kids is the Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the base of the hill. Lodging can be found at the Seacliff Inn, a few blocks away.
Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped parking is available near the pier as is a ramp and handicapped restroom facilities. The pier itself has wood planks and the railing is 42 inches high. Posted for handicapped.
How To Get There: From Highway 1 take the State Park Drive exit; follow the road west to the park entrance.
Management: California Department of Parks and Recreation.