Shipwreck find solves 95-year mystery

The USS Conestoga in San Diego in early 1921. The Navy tugboat was found by government researchers off the California coast.

By David L. Phillips - Star Tribune

A Navy tugboat that disappeared after it sailed from San Francisco in 1921 has been found by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers in shark-infested waters about 30 miles west of San Francisco, ending a 95-year-old mystery.

The tugboat, the USS Conestoga, left California with 56 officers and crew members on board, bound for Tutuila, American Samoa, by way of Hawaii.

When the ship failed to arrive, the Navy carried out an expansive air and sea search, but only a battered lifeboat with the letter “C” on its bow was ever found, hundreds of miles off the expected course.

In 2009, the NOAA Office of Coast Survey spotted an uncharted shipwreck near the Farallon Islands, a forbidding cluster of sharp rocks known for shipwrecks and a large population of great white sharks.

Video from an investigation in 2015 using remotely operated vehicles shows the shipwreck under nearly 200 feet of water, encrusted in rust but largely intact, festooned with colorful sea anemones, rockfish and eels. Using the video, the NOAA and Navy researchers confirmed that the wreck’s distinctive propeller and deck-mounted gun matched the long-lost tugboat.

“After nearly a century of ambiguity and a profound sense of loss, the Conestoga’s disappearance no longer is a mystery,” Manson Brown, a deputy NOAA administrator, said this week.

Weather logs indicate that soon after leaving California, the tugboat hit high winds and rough seas.

A radio transmission relayed by another ship said that the tug was “battling a storm and that the barge she was towing had been torn adrift by heavy seas.”

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NOAA wreck San Francisco Navy tugboat USS Conestoga