When Seacliff Beach is exposed to heavy surf, a jigsaw puzzle of metallic construction rises from the sand. That always brings up questions of what that might be. The answer is that they are the remains of the original seawall. After the death of Claus Spreckels, his Aptos Ranch was sold during the roaring twenties and became Seacliff, Rio Del Mar, and a few smaller developments.
Aptos beaches were serene and a perfect draw for vacation homes. No major storms had occurred at Seacliff between 1916 and 1923 which is why the developers of Seacliff Park had such grand plans for the beach. In 1925, a large sign was posted on Seacliff Beach which proclaimed the construction program of the Seacliff Company, in progress, included an esplanade, pleasure pier, a 2,000 foot seawall, bathing pavilion, a children’s sand garden, dining hall and dance pavilion, automobile parking space, and modern beach bungalettes for rent or lease. Although the concrete seawall looked as substantial as the one that protects the houses below the gate at the end of Clubhouse Drive today, it lasted less than a year. The metal plates you sometimes see sticking out of the sand were the footings for the base of the original seawall.
Before the first seawall was even back filled, a storm in February of 1926 caused waves to wash over the wall causing serious damage. The builder stated that improvements to the repaired seawall would make a repetition of the recent troubles impossible. In February of 1927 the remainder of the seawall was destroyed, and the beach facilities were heavily damaged.
The storm damage is what lead the Seacliff developers to purchase a surplus concrete oil tanker for use as an amusement center since there were not sufficient funds remaining to rebuild the damaged facilities and construct the pleasure pier and pavilion that had originally been envisioned. On January 25th of 1930, the concrete ship, S.S. Palo Alto was towed into position and sunk onto the sandy bottom. A 630-foot pier was built out to the ship’s stern, and she was refitted as a pleasure ship and opened Saturday, June 21, 1930, to a crowd of 3,000 people.
In 1931, five significant storms hit the coast. That year a new timber bulkhead was constructed closer to the cliff. A storm on December 9th and 10th destroyed part of the bulkhead and on December 26th more of the bulkhead was destroyed along with the concession building and bathing pavilion. Mother Nature was also determined that the concrete ship was not going to last and in 1932 a storm cracked the ship in half.
Since 1927 there have been eleven major storms that have either damaged or destroyed seawalls and bulkheads in Seacliff and beyond. During 1983 and early 1984, the state questioned whether this continuous cycle of damage and repair at Seacliff State Beach was proper public policy. After looking at the alternatives the state determined that periodic repair of timber bulkheads was the most cost effective approach to providing public recreational access to the beach.
The stormy week of January 17th 2016, was not particularly violent but the large swells, waves and high tides were sufficient to cause a new break in the back half of the concrete ship. The ship is now all askew with the bow pointing up to starboard and the stern sinking off to port.
Much of the information provided comes from two articles about Seacliff storm damage co-authored by Garry Griggs, Director, Institute of Marine Sciences at UCSC, which he graciously allowed me to reference.