Discovery of sunken ship off SF coast squashes 95-year-old mystery

USS Conestoga at San Diego, California, January 1921. (Courtesy Naval Historical Center)

A naval ship that went missing nearly 95 years ago after departing from the San Francisco coast has been discovered, solving one of the oldest maritime mysteries in U.S. Navy history, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Navy announced Wednesday.

The USS Conestoga set sail from San Francisco en route to Pearl Harbor on March 25, 1921, where the crew planned to continue their voyage to the American Samoa, according to NOAA, a government agency that studies the environment by tracking weather, oceans and coasts.

But the WWI-era tugboat and its 56-person crew of sailors and officers never made it to the Hawaiian naval base, according to NOAA. Despite multiple search efforts, including sea and air searches throughout the Hawaiian islands, the ship was declared missing by the U.S. Navy in June 1921.

The boat was one of four navy ships lost during peacetime throughout the 20th century, according to NOAA officials.

“It was a headline-grabbing story because ships don’t sink that often, especially during peacetime,” said Jay Thomas, an assistant director at the Naval History and Heritage Command who helped find the boat.

The boat’s remains were missing for decades, until a NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey in 2009 tracked a previously undocumented shipwreck near the Farallon Islands, located west of San Francisco. The NOAA survey includes a hydrographic survey of the area encompassing the San Francisco and North Bay coasts, mapping the ocean floor depths and physical attributes.

NOAA subsequently launched a two-year investigation in 2014 to track historic shipwrecks in the Greater Farallones Sanctuary located off the coast of the North Bay.

That investigation led NOAA researchers, who worked in collaboration with the U.S. Navy, to identify the previously uncharted shipwreck found near the Farallon Islands as the USS Conestoga.

The tugboat remains largely intact, save for upper features and the wooden deck, which have collapsed due to corrosion over time, NOAA officials said, adding that weather logs during the Conestoga’s departure shows high winds and waves. NOAA experts believe the ship sank as those onboard struggled to reach a cove at the Farallon Islands.

James Delgado, director of NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and one of the lead members investigating the shipwreck, said since the USS Conestoga discovery, the organization has worked to track down the families of crew members who died at sea to provide answers about their once-missing family members.

“This is an event, while 95 years ago, that still resonates with their families,” Delgado said.

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