Lost But Not Forgotten: New Profiles added to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Database

By Michele Roest

January 2021

lighthouse at sunset
Pigeon Point, on the Northern California coast 40 miles south of San Francisco, is named for the 162-foot clipper ship Carrier Pigeon, which ran aground in 1853. Photo: Sam Bailey

Hazardous coastal points of land are often named for the ships that foundered upon them. More than 460 shipwrecks have been documented in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Six new shipwreck profiles have been added to the sanctuary’s website, including Carrier Pigeon.

On the morning of June 6, 1853, the 162-foot clipper ship Carrier Pigeon was last seen 75 miles south of San Francisco before disappearing into heavy fog. By nightfall the captain, hoping to catch sight of land, steered the vessel toward the coastline. Without warning, the sound of splintering timbers shattered the air as the clipper’s hull crashed upon a ledge of jutting rocks. Within minutes, frigid water filled the ship’s hold. The captain and crew managed to cross 500 feet of churning surf to safely reach the shore. The next morning, word of the ship’s loss reached San Francisco, 40 miles away. The U.S. Coast Survey sent salvage vessels to retrieve the ship’s cargo. More than 1,200 packages were recovered and delivered to San Francisco, along with the crew.

clipper ship archival image
The clipper ship Carrier Pigeon ran aground in 1853. Pigeon Point and the Pigeon Point Lighthouse were named after the wreck. Courtesy of U.S. Lighthouse Society

After the annexation of California to the United States in 1850, San Francisco became a major seaport of the west. Before completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, ships followed a hazardous route from harbors on the Eastern Seaboard south to the tip of Cape Horn, Chile. After replenishing provisions and water, vessels headed northward along the coastline of the Americas to reach San Francisco, a one-way voyage of approximately 15,000 miles. The last 1,200 miles entailed battling against the California Current, a powerful southward flow that brings cold waters, strong winds, and year-round fog to coastal and Baja California.

Seagoing vessels reveal important clues of bygone times and livelihoods. Historically and worldwide, geographic points of land named after shipwrecks signify traumatic moments in time, untold financial losses, and sometimes loss of life. The study of maritime heritage includes information about shipwrecks as well as archival documents such as the ship’s manifest and captain’s log, associated news reports or letters, and recorded oral histories.

Pigeon Point’s treacherous offshore rocks caused several more vessel losses, including those with passenger and crew fatalities. In 1871, construction began on Pigeon Point Lighthouse as a navigational aid to mariners.

In 1992, Carrier Pigeon became one of hundreds of submerged cultural resources protected under the designation of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Like federally protected areas on land, national marine sanctuaries protect America's iconic natural and cultural underwater resources.

Maritime historians assess and conduct research on the cultural, archeological, and historic resources protected within national marine sanctuaries. They also assess the eligibility of historic wrecks for the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the nation's historic places worthy of preservation. “Researching and cataloguing these maritime heritage resources is an important task for maritime historians and resource managers,” Erica Burton, research specialist for Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary explains. “NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is committed to preserving historical, cultural, and archaeological resources, and seeks to increase public awareness of America’s maritime heritage.”

steam schooner archival image
The 102-foot steam schooner Gipsy was nicknamed “Old Perpetual Motion” for 36 years of freight and passenger service between San Francisco and Monterey on the California coast. Courtesy of Randle McLean Biddle Collection.

In Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, more than 460 shipwrecks have been documented; two are included in the National Register: the sidewheel steamer Tennessee and USS Macon. In an effort to increase awareness of maritime heritage and submerged cultural resources, six new shipwreck profile pages have been added to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s maritime heritage website, including Carrier Pigeon.

The 222-foot side-wheel passenger steamer Sierra Nevada, lost in heavy fog in 1869, was the inspiration for the naming of Point Sierra Nevada south of Big Sur in San Luis Obispo County.

archival image of vessel
Point Sierra Nevada in Big Sur, California, was named for the vessel that grounded there in heavy fog in 1869. Courtesy of Robert Schwemmer Maritime Library.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s Maritime Heritage program and vessel profiles offer us insights into the past, reveal how transportation has changed over time, and provide greater understanding of human history on California’s central coast.

Michele Roest is a program coordinator and community liaison for Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.