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‘Cement Ship’ Cracks Under Pressure

Friday, February 5, 2016

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Residents of Aptos, CA, are becoming increasingly concerned about the state of their beloved cement ship sitting off the shore of Seacliff State Beach.

Despite having weathered its share of storms over its 96 years, the SS Palo Alto appears to be suffering under the impact of waves generated by the effects of El Niño, area news station KSBW reported Wednesday (Feb. 3).

The force of the waves have actually lifted and shifted the vessel, and pieces of it have broken away.

"The last series of waves and King Tide, there wasn't even a storm associated with it, the back half of the ship is cracked in half. So now it's like in four quarters," John Hibble, Curator of Aptos History Museum, told the news station.

The Palo Alto has sat offshore in Aptos, south of Santa Cruz, since 1929.

An Unusual History

The San Francisco Shipbuilding Company began construction on the Palo Alto in 1917 at the U.S. Naval Shipyard in Oakland, CA, the reported Monday (Feb. 1).

Intended to be brought into service during World War I, it was built at a time when iron and steel were scarce, according to online magazine Slate. The Palo Alto was one of three concrete tankers built for the war, but the war ended before work was complete.

Though officially launched in May 1919, the 6,100-ton concrete ship sat unused until 1929, when a Nevada company bought the ship and towed it to Aptos with the intent to repurpose it into an entertainment and fishing site.

By Jw4nvc / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By Jw4nvc / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The SS Palo Alto, shown here in 2013, was one of three concrete tankers built for service in World War I, although the war ended before its construction was completed.

When that venture didn’t work out, the company “sunk” the boat, allowing it to settle on the sandy bottom. A pier was added to make the ship an entertainment destination, with a dance floor on the main deck, a cafe, a 4-foot heated swimming pool and a series of carnival concessions on the aft-deck.

After two seasons, the company went bankrupt during the Great Depression, and the ship was stripped and left in place as a fishing pier.

Public access to the Palo Alto is no longer permitted though it still serves as a home to native birds and marine life.

Built to Last

The cement ship, actually constructed using a mixture of concrete and brick: "Fifty percent puff brick, as opposed to gravel, to make it lighter,” according to Hibble.

“The cement comes from Davenport. Cement is what's used to make concrete, so it's actually a concrete ship," he clarified.

The bricks are reported to have come from bricks salvaged from buildings that came down during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

There are no plans to preserve or restore the vessel, as far as the California Parks Department is concerned, according to KSBW. Weather and time will be allowed to run their courses.

Bill Wolcott, Public Safety Superintendent for the California Parks Department, told the news station: "It's going to naturally break down and decay especially during high surf events with the eventual goal of providing more habitat underneath the actual sea surface."

However, that period of decay and deterioration could take as many years as the ship has already existed, according to experts.

"I think that once that ship broke in half the things are going to start to go,” said Gary Griggs, Director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz, “but you know, I wouldn't be surprised if it sits there for another century."

Scott French of Las Animas Concrete agreed: “It'll probably be there another 100 years or so. It's been there 100 now, not in the same state, obviously. Mother Nature will have a lot to say, but it'll still be there."


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Cement; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Environmental Controls; Latin America; North America; Offshore; Shipyards; Weathering

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