Conestoga: A 95-Year-Old Mystery Of The Sea Comes To A Close (VIDEO)

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On March 25, 1921, 95 years ago to the day, the U.S. Navy tug, Conestoga, and her crew of 56 left Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco Bay, only to vanish without a trace.

Ship's Company beside and on USS Conestoga, at San Diego, California, circa early 1921. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 71503)

Ship's Company beside and on USS Conestoga, at San Diego, California, circa early 1921. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 71503)

Commissioned in 1903 as a workboat for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, the Navy acquired her after America’s entrance into World War I and by 1921, the Conestoga had been reassigned to an outpost in American Samoa.

Serving as a natural waypoint between San Francisco and American Samoa, Conestoga was due to make port in Pearl Harbor by April 5 of the same year. More than a month later, the Navy would launch the largest air and a sea search in history (later surpassed by efforts to find Amelia Earhart in 1937) only to come up completely empty handed.

Fast forward to 2009 and enter NOAA. With efforts to better chart the treacherous area off the Farallon Islands, a NOAA multi-beam sonar picked up a signature resembling an uncharted wreck. Located just 30 miles from San Francisco Bay, the wreck displayed none of the characteristics of boats known to be lost in the area.

Returning to the mystery in 2014, a team of maritime archaeologists conducted three exploratory dives using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to observe and try to characterize the unknown wreckage. Experts gathered that the mystery boat was in fact a 170-foot steel ocean tug equipped with a steam engine.

Slowly but surely, with the assistance of the Naval History and Heritage Command and NOAA, researchers compared the wreck’s traits against boats known to have passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, never to be seen again. Two years later, a match was finally identified, putting a nearly century-old mystery to rest.

In September 2009, a NOAA/Fugro multibeam sonar survey of the area around Farallon Islands documented a probable shipwreck with an estimated length of 170 feet at a depth of 185ft. (NOAA/Fugro)

In September 2009, a NOAA/Fugro multibeam sonar survey of the area around Farallon Islands documented a probable shipwreck with an estimated length of 170 feet at a depth of 185ft. (NOAA/Fugro)

So, why the big mystery?

In the wake of the disappearance, rescuers reasoned that the Conestoga had run into trouble much further south, off the coast of Baja or perhaps nearer the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, she never made it nearly that far.

Teledyne SeaBotix's operator Cyril Poissonnet launches an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) off the stern of the research vessel Fulmar during the October 2015 expedition to the USS Conestoga shipwreck. (Robert V. Schwemmer, NOAA ONMS)

Teledyne SeaBotix's operator Cyril Poissonnet launches an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) off the stern of the research vessel Fulmar during the October 2015 expedition to the USS Conestoga shipwreck. (Robert V. Schwemmer, NOAA ONMS)

According to a NOAA report, The Conestoga wreck is oriented north/northwest three miles off Southeast Farallon Island, the largest of the Farallones and the site of the island chain’s lighthouse. The position and orientation of the wreck suggests that the Conestoga’s officers and crew were attempting to reach the more protected waters in the lee of the island or to reach the landing for the lighthouse station in Fisherman’s Cove. A desperate move, which ultimately turned fatal.

Forever protected under the Marine Sanctuary Act and the Sunken Military Craft Act, Conestoga is now a thriving marine habitat, providing an everlasting, living grave for the 56 lost sailors.

The discovery brings both closure to the families of those lost at sea and a new beginning in the form of a forever protected marine sanctuary.

USS Conestoga gunnery department posing with the tugboat's main battery, a 3-inch 50 caliber naval gun, photograph taken at San Diego, California 1921. Lower photograph is the current position of the gun inside the shipwreck near the forecastle after the gun's support platform had fallen from its original position in front of the pilot house through the main deck. The gun was a key diagnostic artifact or "smoking gun" that served to identify the wreck as the USS Conestoga. (Historic photograph, U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 71510. Underwater photograph, NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix.)

USS Conestoga gunnery department posing with the tugboat's main battery, a 3-inch 50 caliber naval gun, photograph taken at San Diego, California 1921. Lower photograph is the current position of the gun inside the shipwreck near the forecastle after the gun's support platform had fallen from its original position in front of the pilot house through the main deck. The gun was a key diagnostic artifact or "smoking gun" that served to identify the wreck as the USS Conestoga.(Historic photograph, U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 71510. Underwater photograph, NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix.)

To see an expanded galley of images and to learn more about the crew lost aboard the Conestoga, visithttp://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/news/press/conestoga/

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