NOAA and the U.S. Navy have announced the discovery of the USS Conestoga (AT 54) in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off San Francisco, 95 years after the Navy seagoing fleet tugboat disappeared with 56 officers and sailors aboard.
“After nearly a century of ambiguity and a profound sense of loss, the Conestoga’s disappearance no longer is a mystery,” said Manson Brown, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy NOAA administrator. “We hope that this discovery brings the families of its lost crew some measure of closure and we look forward to working with the Navy to protect this historic shipwreck and honor the crew who paid the ultimate price for their service to the country.”
On March 25, 1921, Conestoga departed the Golden Gate en route to Tutuila, American Samoa via Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When Conestoga failed to reach Hawaii by its anticipated arrival date the Navy mounted a massive air and sea search around the Hawaiian Islands, the tug’s destination.
Unable to locate the ship or wreckage, the Navy declared Conestoga and its crew lost on June 30, 1921.
In 2009, the NOAA Office of Coast Survey, as part of a hydrographic survey near the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, documented a probable, uncharted shipwreck. In September 2014, NOAA launched a two year investigation co-directed by Delgado and Robert Schwemmer, West Coast regional maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, to document historic shipwrecks in the Greater Farallones sanctuary and nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
In October 2015, NOAA confirmed the identification and location of Conestoga during a mission that included an archaeologist from the Naval History and Heritage Command, as well as several senior Navy officers.
“Thanks to modern science and to cooperation between agencies, the fate of Conestoga is no longer a mystery,” said Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment Dennis V. McGinn.
Based on the location and orientation of the wreck in 189-foot-deep water, three miles off Southeast Farallon Island, NOAA, and its technical and subject matter experts, believe Conestoga sank as officers and crew attempted to reach a protected cove on the island.
Video from cameras mounted on remotely operated vehicles used to explore the wreck site, shows the wreck lying on the seabed and largely intact. The wood deck and other upper features of the tug, however, have collapsed into the hull due to corrosion and age, NOAA said.
No human remains were observed during the dives but Conestoga is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004, which prohibits unauthorized disturbance of sunken military vessels or planes owned by the U.S. government, as well as foreign sunken military craft that lie within U.S. waters.