Maritime archaeology in the great museum of the sea

The oceans, lakes and rivers arguably comprise the greatest maritime museum on the planet, given tens of thousands of years of human interaction.  

These waters have been the source of nourishment, a highway for migration, trade and war, and over the past century, an arena where exploration now delves into their depths rather than crossing them to reach other lands.

To that end, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S. is aquatic counterpart to the better-known NASA as America’s ocean science agency.  Whether through the work of its Coast Survey (which dates to 1807), the National Marine Fisheries, or the more recent Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, NOAA has been engaged in the art and science of delving into the ocean for decades.

One part of NOAA also manages special ocean places within the territorial waters of the United States that have been set aside as marine protected areas, specifically known in the US as National Marine Sanctuaries.  There are fourteen areas in the National Marine Sanctuary System, on every coast and among the Pacific Islands.  In addition to endangered species, coral reefs, and important pelagic and benthic species, the sanctuaries also encompass maritime heritage.  This ranges from drowned ancient shorelines lost to sea level rise at the end of the last great Ice Age, internationally and nationally significant ocean highway routes, fishing grounds and banks, and more than four thousand known shipwrecks.

Maritime heritage program

NOAA’s maritime heritage program works within the waters of the sanctuaries and monuments, as well as beyond, to explore, discover, document, protect and interpret the human history that they encompass.  In this way, we do our bit to be good public stewards as well as the curators and educators of the great museum of the sea.  The key took we bring to the job is not the technology we employ – rather, it is the application of archaeology as the scientific discipline we practice to apply a conservation ethic to the heritage resources that each sanctuary was designated to protect.

While at times our work involves excavation and recovery, most notably with the 1862 wreck of the ironclad warship USS Monitor.  The first sanctuary, it was designated in 1975.  Selective recovery of key elements of the ship led to an ongoing partnership with the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, where conservation, study and display at the Monitor Center will continue for decades and at a cost that will exceed $50 million US.  Understandably, while it was deemed important to do limited recovery of USS Monitor, this is not an approach we take with all 4,000 (or more) of the wrecks that we also administer on behalf of the public.

A significant wreck find

The recent discovery of an important modern wreck in the waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off California’s Golden Gate and the port of San Francisco highlights the fact that there are diverse “exhibits” in the great museum of the sea that the various sanctuaries help display and interpret.  It also is an example of how many of the wrecks are more than historic artifacts – they are memorials, and they are also part of the marine ecosystem.  The story of USS Conestoga, whose loss with 56 of its crew was one of the great mysteries in the history of the U.S. Navy, is a tale that resonated with a national and international audience when we announced its discovery in the sanctuary in March 2016. The news of the discovery brought closure to 56 families, reintroduced the story of a larger public, and underscored why sanctuaries – and maritime museums – are dedicated to the task of preserving maritime history both in museum galleries and at the bottom of the ocean. 

James P.  Delgado, PhD, Director of Maritime Heritage, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Member, ICMM Maritime Archaeology Committee

USS Conestoga (Picture: Naval history heritage command)

The Discovery of USS Conestoga

On a quiet scientific survey in the fall of 2014, one of the great mysteries of the U.S. Navy was solved.  The discovery of a deteriorating hulk of a ship in just 189 feet of water, 27 miles outside of San Francisco’s Golden Gate resolved the question of what had happened, and where lay the wreck of USS Conestoga, one of only 18 U.S. Navy ships that disappeared, never to be seen again in the years before World War II.  On March 25, 1921, Conestoga had departed Mare Island Navy Yard with orders to proceed to Pearl Harbor.  From there, Conestoga would steam to American Samoa to take up duties as Station Ship in that distant South Pacific outpost.  Passing out of the Golden Gate that afternoon, the tug and 56 men never reached Pearl Harbor.  A garbled radio message, a battered, drifting lifeboat discovered by a passing steamer off Mexico’s coast, and a single life vest with the lost tug’s name found cast up on a California beach were the only clues.  Two extensive searches by sea and air failed to find any trace of Conestoga through the summer of 1921.  

The survey that ultimately discovered the wreck was part of a systematic scientific quest to learn more about what lies on the seabed and in the waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the Central California Coast.  The sanctuary is believed to contain the wrecks of some 400 lost ships.  Since 2014, the maritime heritage program of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked to locate some of these ships based on both archival records and sonar targets revealed by seabed mapping by NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.


No historically recorded wreck

One of the first targets to be investigated was a shipwreck that lay 3.1 nautical miles off Southeast Farallon Island first identified by a 2009 sonar survey.  For whatever reason, that specific patch of ocean had not been sonar surveyed previously.  The 2014 maritime heritage expedition decided to investigate the target because it lay where no historically recorded wreck was “supposed” to be.  As the images of what gradually was revealed to be a steel-hulled, riveted steam tug were relayed to the surface as a remotely operated vehicle traversed the wreck, the “mystery tug” sparked a quiet investigation that soon determined that this was a ship supposedly lost 2,000 nautical miles away.  A 3-inch/50 caliber single purpose gun and other features on the wreck confirmed the wreck was USS Conestoga.  Rather than lying off the coasts of either Hawaii or Mexico, where the Navy had focused the 1921 searches, Conestoga had foundered within a day or two of passing out the Golden Gate.

The ship is found but not all the answers

A subsequent mission to the wreck in the fall of 2015 with the Navy learned more about the wreck but did not conclusively find the answer to why the fleet tug had been lost.  We surmise that Conestoga foundered in the face of gale-force winds and heavy seas after turning back in what may have been a desperate run to the closest shelter, a tiny anchorage for the lighthouse and a Naval radio station on Southeast Farallon.  We will never know all the facts, but for the families of the crew, what we have heard, 95 years after the disappearance of the ship and all on board, is that in answering at least the question of where they are, we have brought for them a measure of resolution and peace.

Watch the video about the discovery of USS Conestoga – click here

History of USS Conestoga 

Conestoga I was built for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company by the Sparrow's Point Shipyard of the Maryland Steel Company in Baltimore to tow coal barges. The tug was launched on Friday, November 12, 1903. Maryland Steel delivered Conestoga to the railroad owner on February 6, 1904. Conestoga hauled coal along the coast to keep the railroad running. According an article in the trade journal Marine Engineering in 1904, "These tugs are under steam, with but short intermissions, for months at a time. As soon as they bring one tow of barges into port another one for the return trip is assembled and the tug boat starts out to sea with only a few hours' delay for coaling and taking on provisions and stores."

Conestoga joins the Navy

With the outbreak of World War I and United States' subsequent entry into the conflict, the U.S. Navy purchased Conestoga in September 1917. The Dictionary of American Fighting Ships briefly notes Conestoga's naval career:

“Assigned to the Submarine Force, Conestoga carried out towing duties along the Atlantic coast, transported supplies and guns, escorted convoys to Bermuda and the Azores, and cruised with the American Patrol Detachment in the vicinity of the Azores. At the end of the war she was attached to Naval Base No. 13, Azores, from which she towed disabled ships and escorted convoys until her arrival at New York 26 September 1919. She was then assigned to harbor tug duty in the 5th Naval District at Norfolk. Ordered to duty as station ship at Tutuila, American Samoa, Conestoga underwent alterations and fitting out at Norfolk, and cleared Hampton Roads 18 November 1920 for the Pacific. Arriving at San Diego 7 January 1921, she continued to Mare Island 17 February for voyage repairs. Conestoga put to sea from Mare Island for Samoa 25 March 1921. No further word was ever received from the ship or from her crew of 56. A lifeboat with the letter "C" on the bow was located by the steamship Senator 17 May 1921 in 18°15' N., 115°42' W. but a thorough search of the islands in the vicinity by all available naval and air forces, could locate neither men nor wreckage. Conestoga was declared lost with all her crew 30 June 1921.”