Far beneath the oceans of the world lie thousands of ships.
In fact, there are at least 300 of them lying in the waters surrounding the Farallon Islands just west of San Francisco, less than a five-hour drive from Northern Nevada, says James Delgado, PhD, director of the Maritime Heritage Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean off San Francisco, one of the most mysterious parts of the planet,” added Delgado, who has written a book on Golden Gate shipwrecks and is an internationally-recognized expert on marine archeology.
Delgado and a team of NOAA and U.S. Navy scientists, researchers and divers spent a week in 2009 aboard the research vessel Fulmar using a remotely controlled underwater robotic vehicle to explore the remains of four ships which sank within sight of San Francisco, including the clipper ship Noonday that vanished the first day of 1863.
During that expedition, another sunken vessel was discovered lying in about 250 feet of water approximately 24 miles west of the Golden Gate. But there was no record of its sinking or name, and for several years it remained a nautical mystery.
But following further, more recent and thorough probes of the mystery wreck using the same robotic vehicle named “Rosy,” Delgado’s team discovered two of the ship’s “heads” or porcelain toilets, a spare propeller still chained to the wooden deck and the ship’s 3-inch deck gun. It wasn’t long before the underwater detectives also learned the vessel’s name: The 170-foot oceangoing tugboat USS Conestoga (AT-54), named for the large, canvas-covered wagons drawn by horses, mules or oxen that crossed the nation in the 1840s and 1850s transporting settlers and freight to the mining camps in Northern Nevada and California.
The Conestoga, which carried a crew of four officers and 52 enlisted men who also have never been accounted for, departed from San Francisco bound for Hawaii and American Samoa 95 years ago — on March 25, 1921 — in heavy seas. When it failed to reach Pearl Harbor by its anticipated arrival date, the Navy launched a massive sea and air search, the largest until Amelia Earhart vanished in 1937. But the search was to no avail, and on June 30 of that year the Navy declared the USS Conestoga and its crew lost at sea.
Christopher Johnson, a Navy civilian communications officer who works closely with NOAA which announced the discovery and name of the long-missing tugboat a few days ago, has told me by telephone from Washington, DC that the steel-hulled, 103-year-old USS Conestoga lies upright in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary not far from the Golden Gate Recreation Area.
Launched in 1903, the ship was initially a civilian vessel that towed coal barges along the Atlantic Coast. Sold to the Navy in 1917 for World War I service, it operated off the Atlantic and at Navy bases in Bermuda and the Azores Islands, the latter which lie west of Portugal, performing convoy escort duty, towing services and transporting supplies and weapons until ordered to San Francisco and its fateful journey to Hawaii and American Samoa in 1921.
In an attempt to learn why the Conestoga sank off the Farallones, NOAA and the Navy determined that weather reports at the time of the ship’s departure for Honolulu indicated winds had reached 40 miles per hour and the seas were extremely rough with high waves. A garbled radio transmission from the Conestoga relayed later from another ship stated the tugboat was “battling a storm” and a barge it was towing “has been torn adrift by the heavy seas.” NOAA believes the Conestoga was filling with water and was trying to reach a protected cove on Southeast Farallon Island when it foundered and sank.
“This was the only choice the captain had...it was a desperate act,” stated the NOAA report.
NOAA also reported that videos from the underwater vehicle “Rosy” show the Conestoga is lying in a seabed and largely intact, although the deck and deckhouse have collapsed into the hull due to corrosion and old age. Various species of marine life, such as eels, cod and rockfish inhabit the wreckage, which also has recently revealed the ship’s steam engine and boilers.
No human remains were observed during the dives, and the Conestoga is protected against unauthorized entry by the National Marine Sanctuary Act and the Sunken Military Craft Act which prohibit non-approved explorations of sunken U.S. and foreign ships and aircraft that lie in United States waters.
One of the greatest naval mysteries has now been solved. May Lt. Ernest L. Jones, captain of the USS Conestoga, and his 55-man crew Rest in Peace.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.