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California's extreme weather slammed Monterey Bay — and this town's iconic ship was among the victims

The typical signs of a recent storm dotted this quaint coastal village.

Near an elementary school, concrete barriers blocked a flooded road. Across town, a creaking excavator whined near the beach, filling a massive sinkhole. Farther down, soggy driftwood blanketed half the sand.

Still, hundreds of people flocked to Seacliff State Beach last week — many of them locals, acting like tourists.

They came to see something more dramatic: the broken hull of the Palo Alto, a World War I-era tanker that was pummeled by the Pacific storms that ravaged the California coastline, including much of Santa Cruz County.  

The tidal barrage twisted the ship’s stern to a 45-degree angle. Although the severe list to port might seem inconsequential to some, Seacliff’s “Cement Ship” is this town’s most iconic monument.

After almost a century, any change to the stalwart tanker that rests at the end of a pier sends shock waves through the community. Nothing short of people’s memories, sense of place and even mortality are tied up in the mass of concrete and rebar.

“On the first day of the big surf, we were up on the cliff watching, and it was rolling back and forth,” said Brad Sampson, 63, one of many locals who sneaked out on the sand to take photos of the landmark they walked on as children.

“You think of cement as this solid object,” he added. “Now, to see it moving with the waves … that’s kind of sad. All the stuff that I remember from my childhood, my early years, it’s all changing.” 

The history of the Palo Alto is as familiar to the locals here as the history of the Owens Valley is to Angelenos. According to a variety of state park documents, historical material and interviews, the story goes like this:

Steel shortages during World War I gave rise to the idea of building a ship made from reinforced concrete. U.S. officials eventually bought into the concept and commissioned the construction of several ships, including two built at the U.S. Naval Shipyard in Oakland, the  Peralta and the  Palo Alto.

But the war ended before the Palo Alto was finished. Consequently, the 435-foot oil tanker made only one trip across San Francisco Bay before docking in Oakland. It sat dormant there as concrete ships fell out of favor.

The $1.5-million vessel was later sold for just $18,750 and converted to a party boat by the Seacliff Amusement Corp. After buying the ship, Seacliff towed it to the beach, sank it on the shallow ocean bottom and built a pier to its stern.

By the summer of 1930, the Palo Alto was ready for guests, and for two glorious summers it was a popular attraction. 

It featured the Rainbow Ballroom with a dance floor, tall windows and a 10-piece orchestra. Tables in the “dining saloon” were covered with fine white linens; there was a fishing deck on the bow, bingo in the arcade, and, as the stories go, illicit gambling and bootlegged alcohol available below deck.   

In 1932, nature took its first big bite out of the ship, when storms cracked the hull. The Seacliff company went bankrupt that same year, and the Palo Alto’s decks were stripped of valuables.  California State Parks bought the vessel for $1 in 1936. 

Over the years, the ship’s foredeck was closed and the masts removed. Storms worsened the crack in the hull and then ruptured it so badly in 1978 that officials closed the ship.

By that time, the community had grown attached to the Palo Alto and later led an effort in the 1980s to repair it. When the ship reopened with new handrails and asphalt, visitors could once again walk onto it to fish.

But the end arrived around 2000 when officials permanently shut down the deck. A few years later, they cleaned up the oil in the hull. Since then, the defunct landmark with a ghost-ship vibe has slouched below the pier.

Last winter, nature struck again. Waves from El Niño storms cracked the stern in two and tilted it slightly.  

Then came Jan. 21.

Record-setting surf engulfed the ship that Saturday morning, slicing into its cracks with enough force to rend the Palo Alto’s stern again and rotate it further onto its port side.

Locals said cars lined up on State Park Drive all weekend, as hundreds of people packed the beach to get a glimpse of the twisted hull. 

“I got a telephone call and an email about 8 a.m. [Saturday],” recalled John Hibble, curator of the Aptos History Museum. “They said, ‘You’ve gotta see the ship. It’ll never be the same.’ ”

The powerful waves resulted from an area of low pressure that had developed earlier that week over the Pacific. Those conditions generated a large swell that moved gradually toward the coast, arriving just as the third of three winter storms struck Santa Cruz County. Together, the weather systems combined to make history.

On that Saturday, a network of buoys almost 30 miles off the coast recorded groundswells of up to 34.12 feet high — the largest since officials began recording data there in 1987. 

“This will definitely go down as a historic storm with regards to surf impacting the Central Coast,” said Matt Mehle, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Monterey. “It generated extremely dangerous situations.”

During the storms, the Coast Guard headed to Pebble Beach and searched in vain for a man and a woman who vanished along the coastline. Less than 2 inches of weekend rain was enough to close more than 30 roads in Santa Cruz County. Trees fell and mud slid. 

Santa Cruz was among the counties Gov. Jerry Brown declared to be under a state of emergency. Local officials estimated that this winter’s storms have caused at least $15 million in damage, and a State Parks superintendent said they were also responsible for felling another area landmark: the Advocate Tree in the Forest of Nisene Marks.

Still, locals say nothing is threaded into the fabric of Aptos like the Palo Alto. It takes center stage at Seacliff State Beach’s visitors center, where the gift shop sells hats with an artist’s rendering of the vessel at sunset.

Photos of the Palo Alto fill a wall at the history museum, which also displays pieces of the ship’s concrete. A mural on the corner of the Seacliff neighborhood’s main street depicts a grand version of the Palo Alto as it looked in 1930.

Inside Forget Me Not, a clothing boutique down the street, owner Diane Strickland had only three sweatshirts with ship logos left to sell on Thursday. All the T-shirts had been sold. 

“We’ve already reordered,” said Strickland, who opened her shop in 1977. “We’re going to take the plate we use for this and put a crack in it. ...  But I’m not going to tip it.” 

Aptos is filled with people like Strickland who take pride in the town’s long, rich history and their place within it. It’s the sort of community where she felt comfortable strolling to the mural while a customer roamed her shop unsupervised.

Some of the town’s winding roads and residential streets lack curbs and sidewalks. Even the town’s Starbucks looks quaint inside one of the Old-West style, wood-shingled buildings that fill the village.

Mike Murray, 38, lives in one of Seacliff’s many modest beach houses. Inside, a framed photo of the Palo Alto hangs on a wall.

As a child, Murray’s mother would wheel him down to the beach in a red Radio Flyer wagon. She would wash clothes at the laundromat. His grandfather would get doughnuts at the drive-in. Halfway to the beach, he would warn of bears in the bushes. Yet they never emerged. Murray always made it to the sand, the pier — and the ship.

“Once you went out there, it was this huge skeleton of a thing,” Murray said. “It felt like yours, like something you had to check on.”

Murray guesses he performed some version of this routine dozens, perhaps 100 times. Each time he returns today, he passes the same laundromat and the same drive-in.

The ship, of course, has changed. State officials plan to let it continue to degrade as it evolves into an artificial reef.

But Murray hopes that in the years ahead there will be at least “some shred” of the ship left to point at. 

He’s expecting a boy of his own this summer.

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByMattStevens

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