Three Miles from Safety: USS Conestoga

On March 25, 1921, the U.S. Navy tug USS Conestoga and its 56-man crew left San Francisco Bay bound for American Samoa. Before they could reach their stopover point in Hawai‘i, Conestoga and its crew vanished without a trace. Despite a detailed search by the U.S. Navy, Conestoga's location, and the fate of its crew, remained a mystery for nearly a century.

In 2014, the NOAA Offce of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program investigated a target in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary that was thought to be a shipwreck. Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), maritime archaeologists conducted survey dives to characterize the target. The ship appeared to be an unknown vessel of late 19th or early 20th century vintage—but its characteristics matched none of the ships known to have been lost in the sanctuary. After careful assessment of historical accounts, the wreck was finally identied as the USS Conestoga.

gunnery department standing by the conestoga gun
Members of Conestoga's Gunnery Department were among those Using footage obtained with an ROV, maritime archaeologists were able to identify lost when the vessel sank. Photo: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command
conestoga gun underwater covered in marine life
Using footage obtained with an ROV, maritime archaeologists were able to identify lost when the vessel sank. the wreck of the USS Conestoga. Photo: NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix

Conestoga had been presumed lost off the coast of Baja California or close to Hawai‘i. Instead, archaeologists believe Conestoga most likely ran into trouble soon after leaving the Golden Gate and steaming into gale conditions. Perhaps leaking from the strain of laboring in heavy swell and overwhelmed by water washing over the decks, Conestoga headed to the sanctuary of the Farallon Islands, which had a lighthouse and a U.S. Naval Radio Station.

They nearly made it: today, the USS Conestoga rests on the sea floor just three miles off Southeast Farallon Island, the largest of the Farallones and the site of the islands' lighthouse. The vessel is now a military grave for its 56 crew, the remains of whom may remain entombed inside the hull, and is protected by the National Marine Sanctuary Act and the Sunken Military Craft Act.

The wreck is also a habitat within the sanctuary: from this tragic loss comes new life. This discovery has provided closure for the families of Conestoga's crew, who keep the story alive for future generations.