The Discovery Of A Sunken Shipwreck Has Solved One Of America’s Great Maritime Mysteries

Image: U.S. Navy

The port at Pearl Harbor remains quiet, no sign of the USS Conestoga on the horizon. The tugboat carries 56 members of the U.S. Navy, and it has plans to make a routine stop in Hawaii. But the vessel never arrives, kicking off an extensive search by land and by sea – one that doesn’t end for nearly 100 years.

Image: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

The USS Conestoga became part of the U.S. Navy’s fleet in September 1917, and, at first, the military planned to use the vessel as both a minesweeping ship and a fleet tender. However, in the 1920s, the Conestoga had a new purpose – she would anchor in American Samoa and become a station ship.

Image: W.P. Burbage, 1970/U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

But the USS Conestoga never completed her journey to her new home. Instead, she disappeared at sea in 1921, and naval heads called off the search for her in June of that year. Of course, people still wondered what happened to the ship and, for some, their loved ones who vanished along with the vessel. In 2016, they finally got their answer.

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Image: W.P. Burbage, 1970/U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The Maryland Steel Co. built the ship that would become known as the USS Conestoga in 1904. The Philadelphia and Reading Railway commissioned the tugboat’s construction, but they wouldn’t have it in their fleet forever. As by 1917, the U.S. Navy needed the ship as part of its fleet for World War I.

Image: Royal Navy official photographer/{{PD-Art}}

The Navy added the USS Conestoga to its ranks for two purposes – the tugboat could search for mines, and it could journey back and forth to larger ships to bring them supplies. As such, the Conestoga became a part of the U.S. Naval fleet on November, 10, 1917, and was quickly put into service.

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Before the USS Conestoga could join the Navy – specifically, its Submarine Force – it needed some tweaks to its design. After that, the one-time tugboat could perform a slew of duties. The ship continued towing other boats up and down the Atlantic Coast, but it also served as a transport vehicle for arms and other supplies.

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Image: United States Marine Corps (Official Marine Corps Photo)

However, the USS Conestoga traveled beyond U.S. waters during World War I, as well. The former tugboat served as an escort to convoys making long-distance journeys to Bermuda and even to the Azores. The Conestoga remained close to the Portuguese islands until the conflict ended, at which point she began towing broken-down vessels.

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Image: Chamber of Commerce (Queens, New York, N.Y.) Willis, Walter I., comp/Internet Archive Book Images

The end of World War I saw the USS Conestoga continue her role as convoy escort, too. She fulfilled all of these duties until making her return to the U.S. on September 26, 1919. After porting first in New York, the ship received an assignment to harbor in Norfolk, Virginia, where she resumed tugging duties for naval ships in the area.

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While stationed in Norfolk, the USS Conestoga received a new set of orders. The tugboat would be re-outfitted in Virginia, transforming it into a station ship. Then, she would travel to San Diego, California, beginning the journey toward her ultimate destination of Tutuila, American Samoa.

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Image: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

After the USS Conestoga reached San Diego on January 7, 1921, she ventured onward to Mare Island, northeast of San Francisco. There, she arrived on February 17 and anchored for repairs ahead of the voyage. When the vessel was ready to depart for its next stop – Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor – she left from the Golden Gate strait.

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Image: W. P. Burbage, 1970/Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 71504

Interestingly, the USS Conestoga made her departure from the Golden Gate strait long before the famous bridge even spanned the waterway. Instead, the vessel and its 56 crew members – including commanding lieutenant Ernest L. Jones, three warrant officers and 52 Navy enlistees – set sail without passing beneath the famous structure.

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The USS Conestoga’s departure from the Golden Gate strait was noteworthy for more than one reason – it was also the last time anyone would see the tugboat for nearly 100 years. Days after its March departure from California, the vessel was due to arrive in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, but it never showed up.

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Right away, naval officers on the ground knew that something was amiss with the USS Conestoga. They took to the air and sea trying to locate their missing vessel and the 56 men on board. However, they found no trace of her, nor could they find the barge that she had been towing.

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What the Navy did know was that the USS Conestoga likely faced rough conditions once it set sail. The wind picked up speed in the Golden Gate strait, rising from 23 to 40 miles per hour. Such gusts created high waves in the San Francisco waterway – the same was waiting for the tugboat at sea.

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One of USS Conestoga’s final radio transmissions indicated much the same. According to a March 23, 2016, press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the tugboat had sent a message to another vessel, alerting it that the ship was “battling a storm and that the barge she was towing had been torn adrift by heavy seas.”

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This information provided no clue as to where the USS Conestoga had ended up, though. Naval officers got a hint on May 17, 1921, though, when a steamship called Senator crossed paths with an empty, battered lifeboat floating about 650 miles west of the Mexican port of Manzanillo.

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Image: NOAA

Although the lifeboat had clearly been roughed up at sea, it still had one interesting detail – a brass letter “C” still clung to the bow. It looked as though the Senator found a remnant of the USS Conestoga in its path. However, the Navy Department wasn’t so sure that the dinghy had come from their tugboat.

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Within the lifeboat, they found its identification number – M5535 B. A similar Navy lifeboat would have a different code for a vessel like the one found off the Mexican coast. Consequently, the small boat emblazoned with the letter “C” had not come from the USS Conestoga – and they had yet to find any other evidence of the ship’s whereabouts.

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Image: Miller, Francis Trevelyan, 1877-1959 Lanier, Robert S. (Robert Sampson), 1880/Internet Archive Book Images

The Navy continued its search for the USS Conestoga in the weeks that followed the lifeboat red herring. However, their efforts – which took place by air and sea – uncovered no trace of the tugboat, nor the men who served as its crew. So, on June 30, 1921, the Navy declared that the vessel was lost at sea, along with all 56 people on board.

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Image: W.P. Burbage, 1970/U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

The public followed along with the USS Conestoga’s harrowing tale, as publishers splashed it across newspapers’ front pages as the search raged on. Indeed, it was a newsworthy event — little did they know then, but the Conestoga would be the last-ever Navy ship to disappear during peacetime.

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Image: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 52858

And, after the major search-and-rescue effort, the USS Conestoga’s story seemed to be closed. No one found any sign of a wreck, nor did they discover the ship at a far-flung port. But modern times – and technology – would eventually provide answers that the Navy and the public had sought for decades.

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Image: YouTube/NOAA Sanctuaries

The first clue came in 2009, when the NOAA chartered an expedition through their Office of Coast Survey. As the name implies, this branch of the Oceanic Administration creates maps and charts of the seafloor. They identify any potential obstructions hiding underwater, and they help in maritime emergencies, too.

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Image: Jan Roletto/DOC/NOAA

Their 2009 mission had much less dramatic aims, though. At sea, they used multibeam sonar to see the ocean floor surrounding the Farallon Islands, which sit within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The small islands sit just off the coast of San Francisco, visible from the mainland when the weather is clear.

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Image: Common Murre Restoration Project, USFWS (United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Farallon Islands may look peaceful from San Francisco but, to sailors in the past and present, they have proved to be a difficult obstacle. In fact, they earned the nickname “Devil’s Teeth,” thanks to the shoals that surround them. These sandbanks typically hide just out of view underwater, but rise up high enough from the seafloor to stop a ship in its tracks.

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Image: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of NOAA

So, finding a shipwreck in a shoal would be a normal occurrence – and that’s precisely what happened during the NOAA’s August 2009 expedition. Their sonar mapped the shell of what seemed to be a sunken vessel. Even more interestingly, the doomed boat appeared to be a tug, which matched the make of the USS Conestoga.

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Image: YouTube/NOAA Sanctuaries

It would take five more years for experts to take a closer look at this wreckage, though. This time, they got right up to the underwater vessel thanks to remotely operated vehicles, which examined the mass in September 2014. With that footage, experts could confirm that they were, indeed, looking at a steam-powered tugboat.

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Image: YouTube/NOAA Sanctuaries

Interestingly, though, their archives provided very little identifying information to match the ship with the missing USS Conestoga. They knew that the underwater tugboat measured in at 170 feet in length and had a 26-foot beam. But they couldn’t match those characteristics to the naval tugboat without any record of its size.

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Image: YouTube/NOAA Sanctuaries

Fortunately, the NOAA got some of help the next year from the Naval History and Heritage Command, an organization dedicated to preserving the country’s naval history and artefacts. Their staff work in 13 locations across the U.S., and their finds fill ten museums and one heritage center.

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An NHHC expert, therefore, would be able to identify the undersea tugboat if it did, indeed, belong to the U.S. Navy’s former fleet. Once again, the team sent down remotely operated vehicles to explore the vessel further – and they didn’t just chart its dimensions this time. Instead, they found evidence of the era from which the ship had come.

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Image: Facebook/NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

The robotic explorers gave experts a glimpse at World War I-era relics, including a 50-caliber, three-inch gun. They also found a pair of Scotch marine boilers, as well as an engine that ran on steam. With that, the team was able to confirm that they had finally found the remains of the USS Conestoga.

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Image: YouTube/NOAA Sanctuaries

In the NOAA’s 2016 press release, deputy administrator Manson Brown announced, “After nearly a century of ambiguity and a profound sense of loss, the Conestoga’s disappearance is no longer a mystery.” Dennis V. McGinn, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment, credited tech upgrades for helping discover the long-lost vessel.

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Image: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of NOAA

McGinn echoed Brown, saying, “Thanks to modern science and to cooperation between agencies, the fate of Conestoga is no longer a mystery.” And both of the NOAA’s experts also agreed that the best part about their find was finally providing closure to those who lost relatives aboard the tugboat.

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Image: YouTube/NOAA Sanctuaries

Brown concluded by saying, “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.”

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Image: YouTube/NOAA Sanctuaries

McGinn highlighted one of the major lessons taught by the USS Conestoga – the ocean can be a dangerous place. He said, “In remembering the loss of the Conestoga, we pay tribute to her crew and their families, and remember that, even in peacetime, the sea is an unforgiving environment.”

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Image: Shepp, James W.; Shepp, Daniel B.

On that note, experts were able to theorize what happened to the Conestoga, once they found the tugboat’s wrecked remains. Firstly, the NOAA and Navy believed the vessel was not traveling alone. It had likely been towing a barge along with it as it sailed out from the Golden Gate strait.

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As it ventured into open water on its journey to Hawaii, though, the tides changed — and not for the better. Instead, experts believe that the tugboat found itself in the midst of a storm. So, Lieutenant Jones decided to head for the Southeast Farallon Island, where a protected cove could provide protection to his vessel.

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Image: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of NOAA/Released

The fact he did so proves just how treacherous the seas were that day. The NOAA’s report said, “This would have been a desperate act, as the approach is difficult and the area was the setting for five shipwrecks between 1858 and 1907. However, as Conestoga was in trouble and filling with water, it seemingly was the only choice to make.”

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Image: NOAA ONMS

This theory seemed to align with an earlier piece of evidence, too. As previously mentioned, another ship had come forward with a radio transmission from the Conestoga, albeit an imperfect one. Supposedly, the tugboat’s team had alerted the nearby ship that they were in a storm and had lost the barge they were towing.

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Image: Historic illustration, Robert Schwemmer Maritime Library. Underwater photograph, NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix

What experts did not find during their modern search were the bodies of the 56 men who staffed the Conestoga on its last voyage. Nevertheless, the discovery of the vessel does provide an answer to those who had ancestors aboard the ship. And the vessel’s remains can never be disturbed, thanks to the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004.

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Image: EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER/Getty Images

Perhaps its preservation will provide further solace to those who have followed the USS Conestoga’s story. And the military vessel continues to serve a purpose in the water just off of San Francisco — her crumpled shell is now home to a slew of marine wildlife, including anemones, eels, cod and rockfish.

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