Concrete Ship Palto Alto
By James Donahue
A shortage of steel during World War I prompted Congress to appropriate money under an Emergency Fleet bill to have
24 concrete ships constructed for the war effort. The Palo Alto, which still rests as a breakwater at Aptos, California was
one of three such concrete ships built by the San Francisco Ship Building Company in 1918.
The Palo Alto was built and designed as a tanker. While the hull was launched and fitted out, it never went to sea.
A sister ship, the Faith, was the only one of the three that was ever used. It carried cargo until 1921 and then was sold
and scrapped for use as a breakwater in Cuba.
The war ended by the time the Palo Alto and the third concrete ship finished at San Francisco, the Peralta, were finished.
The Palo Alto remained docked at Oakland until 1929 when the Cal-Nevada Company bought the vessel. The company towed it to
Seacliff State Beach at Aptos where it was sunk in shallow water at the end of a pier. The ship was remodeled as a unique
amusement park complete with a café, heated swimming pool, a dance floor and a series of carnival concessions on its decks
and within the superstructure.
The concept of an amusement park on an abandoned World War I concrete tanker hull never caught on. The company went
broke after two years. The Palo Alto was stripped to the abandoned concrete hull that remains on the spot to this day. The
hull has been declared unsafe for the public to explore, although it serves as an artificial reef for marine life.
In 2005 it was discovered that the old wreck was leaking oil. This involved a $1.7 million clean-up project.
The concept of building concrete ships was not new in 1918. Frenchman Joseph Lambot is believed to have manufactured
the first concrete vessel, a dingy, in 1848. It was featured in the 1855 World’s Fair in France.
Then in the 1890s, an Italian engineer, Carlo Gabellini, successfully built barges and small ships out of concrete.
Norwegian N. K. Fougner launched the first ocean-going concrete ship, the Namsenfjord. It’s success prompted
the U. S. Navy to consider using concrete in the construction of ships for the war effort. Fougner was used as a consultant
in the design of the ships built at San Francisco.