Solving a Century-Old Riddle: Discovering the Wreck of the “Conestoga”

The USS Conestoga. Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command NH 71299

It could be the storyline for a great mystery novel or action-adventure film: What happened to the USS Conestoga and its 56-person crew, headed from San Francisco Bay to American Samoa in March 1921, when they all simply vanished?

When the Conestoga never reached its initial stop in Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i, the Navy launched its largest sea and air search in history until it tried to find Amelia Earhart and her plane in 1937. But it turned up nothing.

For nearly a century, the Conestoga’s whereabouts were unknown. Finally, in March 2015 and thanks to the skills and high-tech resources of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) Maritime Heritage Program, several mysteries were solved.

Uncovering and preserving maritime history is a major part of the work conducted at many of America’s national marine sanctuaries. To identify the Conestoga, analyze what problems it encountered and understand the ultimate heroism of its crew required experts using a multibeam sonic target, a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), survey dives and research into historical accounts.

The story gained worldwide media attention including CNN, Washington Post, ABC Network and Smithsonian Magazine.

A great starting point is NOAA ONMS’s own story.

The Conestoga wreck, now federally protected, rests on the seafloor three miles off Southeast Farallon Island, the largest of the Farallones. It is a military grave for its crew and, with its discovery, has provided closure for their descendants.

For history buffs, the national marine sanctuary system offers mesmerizing insight into centuries of maritime heritage. Many sanctuaries are home to military, commercial and other notable wrecks including the famous Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, the remains from the Battle of Midway, 19th century steamboats and schooners and ancient civilizations’ fishing vessels. Some of these wrecks can be explored up close through diving, snorkeling and boating while others can be studied through visitor center exhibits, learning programs and video. For more information, check out our sanctuaries through the Explore section.