Beneath the lapping waters of the Pacific Ocean – and in the shadow of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – there’s a dark seabed littered with ghostly secrets. But a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is on a mission to uncover them all. With the help of underwater robots, they delve into the mysteries of the deep. And as they go, the experts make incredible discoveries that could very well send a shiver down your spine.
Yes, under the famous rust-colored bridge, there are a number of historic treasures. And below the surface of San Francisco Bay, NOAA’s remotely operated vehicles have been uncovering a fascinating story. If you’ve ever crossed the famous landmark, though, you probably had no idea of what was lurking beneath your feet.
Plenty of folks have traveled on the bridge, of course. A lot have snapped pictures of it with their cameras, too. According to Frommer’s, more photographs are taken of San Francisco’s most famous structure than of any other bridge worldwide. And it’s easy to see why. At almost two miles long, it straddles the gap between the city and the wide Pacific Ocean. Its orange hue also provides a stark contrast to the blue Californian sky.
The Golden Gate Bridge is so beloved, in fact, that the American Society of Civil Engineers considers it to be one of the Wonders of the Modern World. Yep, it sits alongside such feats of engineering as the Empire State Building and the Panama Canal. But although millions of people visit the landmark every year, few are aware of what’s in the waters below. Now, the NOAA team is hoping to change that.
In their struggle to uncover the world beneath the waves, though, the experts are battling a landscape that has a reputation for keeping its treasures under wraps. In any case, Spanish conquistadors sailed right past the San Francisco Bay when they first arrived on the Californian coast.
Often blanketed in a layer of fog, the bay actually remained hidden from the Spanish until the 18th century. And even when they did make it through the strait – known as the Golden Gate – intrepid sailors were forced to navigate perilous waters. Thick clouds frequently obscured the view, while storms, strong winds and swells battered ships against the rocks.
At the Golden Gate itself, a strong current often caught approaching vessels – scuppering them before they could reach the safety of the bay. These early arrivals also lacked charts and other navigational equipment, meaning they were at the mercy of the wild Pacific Ocean. But despite such challenges, a settlement later sprang up around the natural harbor.
Initially part of Mexico, the burgeoning city of San Francisco was ceded to the U.S. in 1848. Then, two years later, California became the 31st state to join the Union. At this point, the Gold Rush was in full swing, and would-be prospectors from all across America were flocking to seek their fortunes on the Western Frontier.
And with so many people arriving by ship, San Francisco Bay quickly became one of the most important seaports in the world. Even after the Gold Rush had died down, this city by the Golden Gate remained a significant maritime resource. But as the metropolis grew, the narrow strait became an obstacle to be conquered.
Before the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, the main route into San Francisco was by boat. And while the city’s coastal location had initially helped it to grow, this isolation ultimately prevented it from developing in line with other parts of the U.S. The authorities had to consider, then, whether there was an alternative to the ferry services that shipped passengers across the bay.
And while a bridge may seem an obvious solution now, many initially believed that it would be impossible to build such a structure across the mouth of San Francisco Bay. After all, the waters beneath the Golden Gate plunge to more than 330 feet deep, and this can create a turbulent channel of strong currents and tides. If that wasn’t enough, any construction project would also be hampered by the heavy fog and wild winds that often batter this part of the Californian coast.
Even if a bridge could be built in such a location, some people reasoned, it would have to be a crossing unlike any ever seen before. For starters, it would need to stand tall enough to allow even the biggest of vessels to sail underneath. But the idea of this impossible construction began to gain traction in the aftermath of the city’s World’s Fair in 1915.
Then, in 1921, the engineer Joseph B. Strauss proposed a combined suspension and cantilever bridge to connect the city of San Francisco to the region now known as Marin County. And Strauss’ idea was a masterstroke, as his design was ultimately revised into one for the Golden Gate Bridge that we know and love today. The plan was ambitious, mind you. If the bridge was realized, it would be the highest and longest structure of its kind anywhere in the world.
But, of course, the landmark was unveiled to much fanfare and acclaim in May 1937. And more than 80 years later, it remains one of San Francisco’s top tourist attractions – as well as probably the city’s most iconic sight. Today, it carries well over 100,000 vehicles every 24 hours, according to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.
And as so many people have passed over the Golden Gate Bridge, it may seem unlikely that there could be anything about it still undiscovered. But it’s true. A number of hidden relics lurk in the churning waters beneath – some dating back to the 1800s. So, what exactly are these sunken mysteries at the bottom of San Francisco Bay?
Well, the researchers and marine archeologists at NOAA know better than most. They’ve made it their mission to uncover the secrets in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. And these folks are well placed to do so. For one, the agency presides over the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary – a preservation area that covers some 330,000 square miles of ocean off the coast of California.
As a governmental organization, NOAA is also responsible for monitoring the oceans and waterways of our planet. Part of this remit involves scanning the seabed to search for anything out of the ordinary. And in the deep ocean, this process sometimes reveals new species or complex organisms mostly unknown to science.
But surely there couldn’t be anything unexpected hiding in the well-traveled waters of the Golden Gate? Well, yes. As it turns out, there could. Over the years, the treacherous currents that sweep through the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and along the San Francisco coast have sent a number of ships to a watery grave. And even now, their long-forgotten wrecks are still being discovered by NOAA.
With this in mind, a team of researchers began conducting a survey in the stretch of ocean just west of the Golden Gate Bridge in September 2014. Having pored over sonar scans of the area, they had identified eight locations that seemed worthy of further investigation. And, amazingly, four of these spots seemed to host what they were looking for: shipwrecks lost for many years beneath the waves.
The team then used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to study each of the sites in turn. They made some truly awe-inspiring discoveries, too – ones that have added a number of fascinating new chapters to the story of the Golden Gate. But what exactly happened to these lost ships? And how have they remained hidden in plain sight for such a long time?
Well, apparently, the oldest of the shipwrecks discovered during NOAA’s September 2014 mission was the Noonday. And, amazingly, this clipper went down all the way back in 1863. Left over from the time of the Gold Rush, the vessel was still hauling men and cargo to the Californian coast long after the prospectors had given up.
On its fateful final journey, the Noonday was nearing the end of the more than four-month trip from Boston to San Francisco. But just as it came within view of the city, the ship hit a rock and began taking on water. And while everyone on board fortunately escaped with their lives, the vessel and its valuable cargo ultimately plunged beneath the waves.
In a somewhat macabre twist, the previously uncharted outcrop that caused the sinking would come to be dubbed Noonday Rock. But while the vessel’s name would be remembered, the exact location of the wreck was lost over time. So, too, was the cargo – despite the best efforts of some of the Noonday’s crew.
That was the case until the 2014 NOAA survey, anyway. Looking at sonar scans of the seabed, a NOAA volunteer identified something in the depths that appeared to be the same size as the Noonday. Even better, this unidentified object was in a location close to the rock that bears the doomed vessel’s name. And after using an ROV to explore the site, researchers finally spotted the outline of a clipper ship.
The team did not uncover any actual remains, though they are confident that they have found the Noonday’s final resting place. NOAA’s James Delgado told the Associated Press at the time, “Noonday is there. The signal is very clear. But there’s just nothing sticking above the seabed.”
During the same survey, the NOAA team also located the wreck of the S.S. Selja – a steamer that sank in 1910. The vessel had plowed the trade routes between Asia and the Pacific Northwest, carrying American goods to sell in China and Japan. And the Selja was loaded with its typical cargo of timber and flour when it left on its final journey from Portland, Oregon.
This time, however, the ship would not get far. Around 700 miles south of Portland, it rounded Point Reyes west of San Francisco and crashed into another steamer – the S.S. Beaver. In the ensuing chaos, the vessel ultimately sank in some 180 feet of water. Two crew members also died as a result of the collision.
Afterward, the Selja’s master Olaf Lie attempted to sue the owners of the Beaver, claiming that the other vessel had been responsible for the accident. The court found, however, that Lie had in fact been at fault and that he’d been traveling far too fast for the foggy conditions. But even though this incident caused quite a stir, the wreck of the steamer was forgotten until NOAA rediscovered it west of the Golden Gate Bridge.
NOAA also uncovered two additional wreck sites on that same mission, though further research was needed to determine the exact identities of the sunken craft. According to reports, one of the vessels was in a poor state of preservation, its bulk obscured by numerous fishing nets. The other appeared to be an unknown tugboat, and it was still remarkably intact.
But why are there so many shipwrecks scattered beneath the Golden Gate Bridge? Well, part of it has to do with the sheer amount of maritime traffic that once passed through the strait. In 2014 Delgado explained to Live Science, “We’re looking at an area that was a funnel to the busiest and most important American port on the Pacific Coast.”
In fact, there are thought to be around 300 wrecks in the waters of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The oldest, according to records, is the San Agustin – a Spanish galleon that crashed into the shore and sank in the 16th century. The most recent, by contrast, is that of the Puerto Rican – a tanker that dramatically exploded off the coast of San Francisco in the 1980s.
And while many of the wrecks still haven’t been explored by scientists, NOAA has been taking steps to address this. A few months before the September 2014 survey, for example, researchers revealed another startling discovery. Almost directly beneath San Francisco’s famous bridge, they had located the wreck of the S.S. City of Chester – which had been lost for well over a century.
Bound for Eureka, California, the steamship had barely left the port in San Francisco before disaster struck. At the entrance to the harbor, it collided with the R.M.S. Oceanic. And after a hole was torn in the City of Chester’s port side, it sank in just six minutes – claiming the lives of 16 people.
Though it had gone down within spitting distance of the Golden Gate, the wreck of the City of Chester languished in obscurity for 120 years. Then, in April 2014, NOAA announced that it had successfully located – and explored – the remains of the tragic vessel. And if the agency’s sonar images are to be believed, the ship has remained in surprisingly good shape over the years.
At the end of 2014, NOAA also released the first photographs of one of the most famous wrecks that litters this stretch of the Californian coast. In February 1901 the steamer S.S. City of Rio de Janeiro had foundered close to the site of the Golden Gate Bridge. According to reports, it had been foggy on the morning of the incident, leaving the captain struggling to navigate through the narrow strait.
On board the doomed vessel were some 210 people – many of them immigrants bound for a fresh start in the United States. Tragically, though, more than half of those on board perished after the City of Rio de Janeiro hit rocks and sank into the cold Pacific Ocean. For many, their dreams of a new life ended there on the ship that was dubbed the “Titanic of the Golden Gate.”
Today, the wreck of the City of Rio de Janeiro sits underneath almost 290 feet of water – near to where the Golden Gate Bridge now stands. But thanks to the work of the people at NOAA, its eerie resting place has been revealed. Using sonar and 3D modeling techniques, researchers were able to build up a fascinating image of how the steamer looks now.
But that’s far from all, as in October 2015 NOAA uncovered yet another surprising secret. That month, a team sent ROVs down to explore the unidentified tugboat wreck first discovered a year earlier. And after examining its features, they were able to determine that it was actually the remains of the USS Conestoga, which had disappeared in 1921.
After a career transporting weapons and supplies during World War I, the Conestoga had been en route to Samoa, where she would be serving as a station ship. But after departing Mare Island some 20 miles north of San Francisco, the ship and her 56 crew members simply vanished. And for almost 100 years, the location of the lost vessel remained an intriguing mystery.
That conundrum was finally solved after some sleuthing by the folks at NOAA. Still, that doesn’t mean that the waters beneath the Golden Gate Bridge have given up all their secrets. Far from it, in fact, if the experts are to be believed. What else will ROVs discover lurking undetected off the coast of San Francisco? Well, only time will tell.
And you don’t have to be part of NOAA to make an incredible underwater find. Take it from Kim McDaniel, who was taking a walk along the shore of Lake Michigan near her home in Muskegon. She was keen to see what damage might have been caused by the fierce storm the day before. But what McDaniel ultimately discovers emerging from the sand is astonishing. It’s so unexpected, in fact, that she calls the Coast Guard to investigate.
Those who live along the shores of Lake Michigan are well accustomed to storms – as are the sailors who navigate its waters. Fall often sees extremely wild weather crossing the lake, and high winds can whip up waves as high as 15 feet, sometimes causing damage to properties along the shoreline. And this bad weather can put ships on the water at risk, too.
But that storm on the day before Thanksgiving 2019 was a humdinger. Winds gusted up to 40 mph, and local businesses were forced into early closure by power blackouts. South Haven – just over 60 miles south of Muskegon on Lake Michigan’s western shore – was even forced to close its beach: the risk from flooding was just too high.
Incidentally, there had been some ferocious weather back in October, too. These storms had resulted in severe erosion along the western shore of Lake Michigan – where the brunt of the high winds and rain had been felt. And matters hadn’t been helped by the fact that water levels across the Great Lakes, including Michigan, had nearly reached record-breaking highs for the time of year.
So, it’s hardly surprising that Muskegon-native McDaniel had decided to check out the storm damage near her home on Thanksgiving. As the woman strolled along the lakeshore, she caught sight of a strange shape near the water’s edge. McDaniel couldn’t work out what this mysterious object might be – but she knew that she hadn’t seen it before. We’ll come back to the discovery shortly, but first, let’s learn a little more about Lake Michigan and some of the secrets that lurk beneath its surface.
You’ll probably remember from grade school geography that Lake Michigan is one of North America’s five Great Lakes. Strictly speaking, there are actually only four great lakes since Michigan is linked by a slim channel, the Straits of Mackinac, to Lake Huron. So the two lakes form one large expanse of water by virtue of their connection. However, in everyday usage, Michigan and Huron stand alone.
Of the five Great Lakes, Michigan is the only one without a section in Canada. It’s surrounded by four U.S. states: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. McDaniel, as we’ve seen, was on that section of the lakeshore that’s within Michigan State when she saw that mysterious object in the water.
Human presence at Lake Michigan goes back at least to the Hopewell Indians, who were there until around A.D. 800. After that various other North American native peoples occupied the region. It was probably in the 1630s that Europeans first arrived at Lake Michigan in the shape of a Frenchman: one Jean Nicolet. He is said to have dressed in vivid colors and to have brandished two pistols to impress the locals.
As European settlement gathered pace from the late-17th century, Lake Michigan became an important transport link for the movement of goods and people. It was part of a network of waterways stretching as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. So it had various vessels plying its waters from an early date.
By the 19th century, as Lake Michigan’s commercial importance increased, cities and ports began to flourish on its shores, including Chicago, Green Bay and Milwaukee. Indeed, before the Civil War, Chicago shipped 90 percent of grain that arrived at the city eastwards across the lake. Even after the later advent of the railroads, 50 percent of grain still traveled across Lake Michigan.
So shipping was a major activity. And even although Michigan is an inland lake, ships often found themselves in trouble thanks to the unpredictable weather patterns and the storms that can seemingly appear from nowhere. The list of vessels sunk on the lake is a long one, as is the roll call of sailors and passengers who have lost their lives over the years.
The most tragic of incidents on Lake Michigan, and indeed on all of the Great Lakes, came in 1860. It involved the P.S. (Paddle Steamer) Lady Elgin, a timber-built vessel fitted with side paddles driven by steam engines. She was constructed in Buffalo, New York in 1851 and was said to have been one of the Great Lakes’ most luxurious and graceful passenger ships.
Lady Elgin seems to have been something of an accident-prone vessel. She sank in 1854 after an argument with a rock but was repaired and returned to service. A fire broke out aboard her in 1857 and the following year she crashed into a reef at Copper Harbor, Michigan. Later that same year she was stranded in a Lake Superior reef.
But all of those were relatively minor mishaps compared to what happened to the unfortunate Lady Elgin in the early hours of September 8, 1860. On September 6, she had set sail from Milwaukee, bound for Chicago. Some 300 of those on board were members of the Irish Union Guard, an anti-slavery militia group. They attended political speeches during the day in Chicago followed by an evening enlivened by a German brass band back on the ship.
As the passengers enjoyed the stirring brass band music, the Lady Elgin steamed across Lake Michigan. Then, out of the darkness, a schooner, Augusta, out of Oswego, rammed straight into the Elgin’s port side. The Augusta’s bowsprit, the spar at her bow, was damaged. But the outcome of the collision was far more serious for the Lady Elgin.
The impact, which came some ten miles from the shore, holed the Lady Elgin below the waterline. The Augusta’s captain, apparently believing that the Elgin was not seriously damaged, sailed on to his destination of Chicago, leaving his stricken victim behind in his wake. This action was to have dire consequences.
On board the Elgin, it was quickly apparent to her skipper, Captain Jack Wilson, that his vessel faced a serious emergency. Indeed, after his first mate woke him, the two men surveyed the damage and rapidly reached the conclusion that their vessel would surely sink. They began to take what action they could.
Wilson and his men attempted to get their vessel to ride higher in the water to stop the inflow of water through the gash in the hull. To lighten the vessel, they pushed live cattle, various bits of cargo and other items overboard. They even tried to plug the hole with mattresses. But it was all to no avail. After just 20 minutes, the Lady Elgin broke up and sank.
Amazingly, this was not the end of the road for most of the crew and passengers. Talking to Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV in 2016, the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association’s Brendan Baillod explained what happened after the ship sank. Baillod said, “People started to spill into the lake, they were clinging to debris wherever they could find them.”
Baillod continued, “Most of the people who were on the Lady Elgin survived the two-hour ride to shore on the debris, what they did not survive was the huge surf of the shoreline.” Of those aboard the ship, 98 survived and were rescued. More than 300 people lost their lives according to most accounts, although Baillod believes the number to be closer to 400. As there was no accurate passenger manifest, it’s difficult to be sure.
In terms of lives lost, the sinking of the Lady Elgin is the worst nautical disaster that the Great Lakes have ever seen. And Baillod described the grim aftermath of the disaster, “People washed up all across the whole shoreline of the lake.” The wreck of the Lady Elgin lay undiscovered for 128 years until it was found in 1989 off the city of Highwood, Illinois.
Fortunately, no other wreck on Lake Michigan cost so many lives, but many other ships have sunk over the years. As recently as 1960, cargo ship S.S. Francisco Morazan set sail across Lake Michigan from Chicago. In a snowstorm, the ship lost its bearings and grounded just 300 yards from the shore. Luckily, the crew of 13 and the captain’s pregnant wife were all rescued although the vessel was a total write-off.
So Lake Michigan is no stranger to disaster. In fact, in modern times, catastrophes involving shipping are much rarer thanks to modern technology and merchant shipping that’s built to a much higher standard than once was the case. But from time to time, evidence of past disasters still emerges from the lake’s shifting waters and mud banks.
And that brings us back to Muskegon resident Kim McDaniel. It’s time we found out just exactly what she spotted just off the shore near her home on Thanksgiving. As we’ve seen, she had gone for a walk to check on the damage caused by a terrific storm the day before when she saw a weird apparition in the water.
McDaniel was walking along the scenic mile-long sandy beach at Muskegon’s Norman F. Kruse Park on Lake Michigan’s Norton Shores when she spotted something strange in the waters of the lake. The park is a popular spot with dog walkers and families with children. Summer sees picnickers and families enjoying the beauty spot.
At first, McDaniel could only make out a dark shape peeking out from the water. Shockingly, closer examination showed that it was actually an old shipwreck that had appeared, ghostlike, above the waves. Erosion caused by the high winds and turbulent waves of the previous day’s had exposed the eerie remains of a timber-hulled ship.
As we’ve seen, shipwrecks are hardly a rarity in the waters of Lake Michigan, but this latest storm had revealed this one for the first time in many years. McDaniel decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances was to alert the Coast Guard. She duly called the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Grand Haven first thing the next morning.
As McDaniel later told ABC affiliate 13 On Your Side, “We were shocked to see this boat that was not there the day before.” Once she’d alerted the Coast Guard to her discovery, staff there reported the wreck to local historians. Divers now went on to the lake to take a closer look at the sunken wreck.
One of those who went into the icy waters of Lake Michigan to get a closer look at the rotting timbers of the wreck was John Hanson, president of the West Michigan Underwater Preserve. That organization works with the state of Michigan to explore and protect wrecks and other archeological features found in the lake’s western coastal area.
Hanson measured the wreck and found it to be 88 feet in length and 21 feet across its beam. He reckoned the vessel was a cargo-carrying barge probably built in the 19th century. Hanson told Fox News, “The wreck is about one-third covered up now. It has lost a few boards from wave action.”
Hanson talked to a historian about the find and was told that this very boat might have been involved in a tragedy on the lake in 1936. In that year, a ship was transporting a large steam-powered crane from Muskogen up the coast to Grand Haven, about a dozen miles south down Lake Michigan’s western shore.
The crane was a Bucyrus Erie Steam Crane, built in 1915. However, what should have been a routine trip, transporting the crane along the Lake Michigan shoreline, ended abruptly in disaster. After the barge sprung a leak, the inflowing water destabilized the vessel when it was about a quarter-mile out on the lake.
In January 2020 Hanson told the WWMT News station what had happened after the barge had gotten into trouble. He explained, “The Coast Guard was called, and being a very old barge, when they hooked onto it and pulled on it, they pulled the bow right off of it. The steam crane went into the water and exploded because it was still hot.”
The crane had drifted, or been pushed by storm surges, around half a mile from where the barge now lies. And there’s good evidence that this really is the barge that carried that crane. Hansen points out that the wreck is missing its bow, tying in with what’s known about the incident back in 1936.
And the remnants of that crane were actually discovered in 2011. It’s now one of the 15 underwater shipwrecks in the West Michigan Underwater Preserve area, and it’s tagged as a dive site. In fact, the preservation area has 13 sites that are classified as underwater museums that divers can visit and explore.
And the appearance of that wrecked barge is not the only evidence of the ferocity of that Lake Michigan storm the day before Thanksgiving. Felled trees have effectively barricaded off the beach at Kruse Park. What’s more, the sandy stretch there has been reduced from its former glory to a slim strip. A stairway that led on to the beach has been destroyed. All in all, it makes for a sad picture of devastation.
After McDaniel had discovered the wreck, her main anxiety was that it should be preserved. She was worried that people would flock to the scene for a look at this intriguing barge wreck. But as she pointed out, most of the viewpoints were actually on private land or atop dunes that were now hazardous because of the erosion resulting from the latest storm.
McDaniel told the 13 On Your Side news station, “Please, please respect this relic. Please give the professionals a chance to measure her, to identify her – right now she is unknown, she is uncharted. Please be careful. These bluffs are eroding, they are falling in. It is not safe, please be careful.”
John Hanson added his words to McDaniel’s plea. He said, “These are historical sites. They’re museums, in essence. You wouldn’t walk into a museum and say, ‘Hey, there’s a shrunken head’ and take it home. You want to leave it there for other people to see and experience. It’s part of our maritime heritage.”
However, it seems that nature may solve the problem of preserving the wreck for posterity and perhaps more detailed investigation in the future. By early January, the action of the lake’s waters had actually begun to cover the shipwrecked barge over. And Hanson was of the opinion that it might well be submerged beneath the lake’s surface again within just a few months.