Lost Navy Craft Found After 95 Years


The USS Conestoga, missing for 95 years, was found recently in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of San Francisco. The U.S. Navy tugboat disappeared in 1921 en route to Tutuila, American Samoa, via Pearl Harbor, with 56 officers and crew aboard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement.

"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 administrator for the NOAA.

"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."

Disappearance Gripped the Country

The discovery of the Conestoga solves a maritime mystery that was headline news in 1921. Newspapers across the country followed the extensive air and sea search for the ship after it failed to arrive at Pearl Harbor on its expected date.

The Conestoga left the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 25 miles northeast of San Francisco, on March 21.

On May 17, 1921, a lifeboat emblazoned with the letter “C” was found by the U.S. steamship Senator off the coast of Manzanillo, Mexico, leading to a search there. But nothing else was found in the area.

USS Conestoga, then and now
Historic photograph, U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 71510. Underwater photograph, NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix

The tugboat's main battery, a 3-inch 50 caliber naval gun, shown with the vessel’s gunnery department above and inside the shipwreck at bottom, was said to be a key diagnostic artifact or "smoking gun" that served to identify the wreck as the USS Conestoga.

With search efforts failing to find any trace of the ship, the Commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District issued a dispatch, “No trace of tug. Loss probable.”  On June 30, 1921, the Navy declared the Conestoga and its crew lost.

The Conestoga became the last U.S. Navy ship to disappear without a trace during peacetime.

Finding the Lost

In 2009, a hydrographic survey conducted by the NOAA Office of Coast Survey revealed a probably uncharted shipwreck near the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco. NOAA launched an investigation in September 2014 to document shipwrecks in the Greater Farallones Sanctuary and the nearby Golden Gate National Recreational Area.

The Conestoga was located and identified in October 2015 by senior Navy officers and an archaeologist from the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Sonar image, USS Conestoga

In September 2009, a NOAA/Fugro multibeam sonar survey of the area around Farallon Islands documented a probable shipwreck with an estimated length of 52 meters (170 feet) at a depth of 56.5 meters (185 feet).

Experts at NOAA believe the Conestoga was caught in rough seas. Weather logs from the period indicate the wind increased from 23 mph to 40 mph, creating high waves. A distorted radio transmission from the Conestoga to another ship stated the tugboat was fighting a storm and that it had lost a barge it was towing.

Based on the location of the shipwreck, it’s believed the Conestoga sought refuge in a nearby cove.

“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," NOAA's report stated. "However, as Conestoga was in trouble and filling with water, it seemingly was the only choice to make." 

Final Resting Place

NOAA confirmed features consistent with Conestoga during remote dives, including the size of the wreckage, propeller dimensions, and the number and location of portholes.

USS Conestoga, final resting place
NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix

Stern view of the shipwreck USS Conestoga colonized with white plumose sea anemones contrasting the water column.

No human remains were found, but the site of the shipwreck is protected by the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004, which prohibit unauthorized disturbance of sunken military vessels or planes owned by the U.S. government, and foreign sunken military craft that lie within U.S. waters.

“Thanks to modern science and to cooperation between agencies, the fate of Conestoga is no longer a mystery," said Dennis V. McGinn, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment.

"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."


Tagged categories: Historic Structures; North America; Program/Project Management; Shipyards; Transportation; U.S. Navy

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.