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Here’s What You Need to Know About the Mystery of the USS Conestoga

USS Conestoga at San Diego, California, January 1921. (Image: Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 71299)
USS Conestoga at San Diego, California, January 1921. (Image: Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 71299)

On March 25, 1921, at 3:25 pm, 56 officers and sailors on-board the USS Conestoga (AT 54) steamed past the Golden Gate, and then vanished without a trace. But now the USS Conestoga has been discovered, answering some questions, but not all.

When the crew of the USS Conestoga left San Francisco, en route to Tutuila, American Samoa via Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, they were ready to explore the world. Little did they know within hours they would be fighting for their lives against the power of the ocean.

USS Conestoga’s resting place found

In 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Coast Survey, during part of a hydrographic survey near the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, documented an uncharted shipwreck with an estimated length of 170 feet (52 meters) at a depth of 185 feet (56.5 m) about three miles (5 km) off the South-east Farallon Island uncharted shipwreck.

Watch this video of the find by sanctuaries:

An NOAA report described the find as:

A two-year investigation was then launched using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) mounted with video cameras to investigate the wreck. What was revealed was a vessel that was mostly intact, although parts of the wooden deck had collapsed.

The officers and crew of USS Conestoga, in San Diego, California in 1921. Lost for 95 years, the tug was discovered in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off San Francisco. (Image: Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 71503)

The officers and crew of USS Conestoga in San Diego, California in 1921. Lost for 95 years, the tug was discovered in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off San Francisco. (Image: Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 71503)

However, there were a number of features that helped researchers to verify the wreck was the ocean-going USS Conestoga. After consulting the plans and descriptions of the tugboat’s layout, which was published in the trade journal Marine Engineering in 1904, they were able match the wreck in its overall size, the design of its propeller, and the location and number of its portholes.

There was also a 50-caliber naval gun that was mounted on the main deck that was another key element in confirming that they’d found the missing vessel.

conestoga-gun-gunnery-deptartment_noaa-teledyne-seabotix

USS Conestoga gunnery department posing with the tugboat’s main battery, a 3-inch 50 caliber naval gun, photograph taken at San Diego, California 1921. Lower photograph is the current position of the gun inside the shipwreck near the forecastle after the gun’s support platform had fallen from its original position in front of the pilot house through the main deck. (Image: Historic photograph, U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 71510. Underwater photograph, NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix)

In March 2016, NOAA made an announcement confirming the uncharted shipwreck was indeed the USS Conestoga. However, more work is required to determine the conditions under which the ship sank.

The history behind the mystery of the USS Conestoga  

Conestoga was a 617-ton steel tugboat originally built for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, by the Sparrow’s Point Shipyard, of the Maryland Steel Company in Baltimore to tow coal barges in 1904.

It wasn’t until September 14, 1917, did the Navy purchase the tug for World War I service. It was commissioned as USS Conestoga (SP 1128), and then listed as a minesweeper in the Navy Department’s Ship’s Data U.S. Naval Vessels publication in 1918.

USS Conestoga at San Diego, California, January 1921. (Image: Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 71299)

USS Conestoga at San Diego, California, January 1921. (Image: Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 71299)

Conestoga’s first assignment was with the Submarine Force, and was fitted out for distant service. It carried out a number of tasks, such as towing duties along the Atlantic coast, transporting supplies and guns, escorting convoys to Bermuda and the Azores, and it also cruised with the American Patrol Detachment in the vicinity of the Azores.

Then, when the war ended it was assigned to Naval Base No. 13 (Azores), where its duties included towing disabled ships and escorting convoys, until its arrival at New York on the 26 September 1919.

Watch this video from sanctuaries about the discovery:

She was then assigned to harbor tug duty in the 5th Naval District at Norfolk, Virginia. Conestoga was then formally classified as a fleet tug, AT-54, on July 17 1920 during the fleet-wide assignment of alphanumeric identification numbers.

Ordered to duty as station ship at Tutuila, American Samoa, Conestoga underwent alterations and a fit-out at Norfolk, and cleared Hampton Roads on November 18, 1920 for the Pacific, with U.S. Navy coal barge YC-468 in tow. Arriving at San Diego on January 7, 1921, she continued to Mare Island, Calif., on the February 17 for voyage repairs.

With Lt. Ernest L. Jones in command and his crew of three warrant officers with 52 enlisted men, the then Conestoga steamed from Mare Island on March 25, 1921 heading for Pearl Harbor with a different coal barge, YC-478, in tow.

Lieutenant Ernest L. Jones, USN, Commanding Officer, USS Conestoga (AT-54) (Image: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 71504)

Lieutenant Ernest L. Jones, USN, Commanding Officer, USS Conestoga (AT-54)
(Image: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command NH 71504)

However, Conestoga and her crew never reached their destination for months; the mysterious disappearance gripped people across the country. Unable to locate the ship or any wreckage, the Navy then declared the Conestoga and its crew lost on June 30, 1921.

March 25, 1921, the day Conestoga vanished

The condition of the Conestoga on the ocean floor suggests the tug had foundered. However, because the hull is buried below the waterline, and with debris lying inside the hull blocking any access, a detailed inspection is not possible.

The sinking

The weather reports for that day were choppy to rough sea, at intervals vessel rolling, wind direction west-northwest at Force 6 (strong breeze over 28-34 miles):

  • 4:00 p.m. the report was “strong gale blowing, rough seas, wind direction west northwest at Force 8 (fresh gale over 40-48 miles per hour) with clear blue skies.”
  • 8:00 p.m. it was “a moderate gale, vessel rolling and pitching, wind direction west northwest at force 7” (moderate gale over 34-40 miles per hour).

The San Francisco Chronicle’s weather report from the “Farallones,” reported that the wind had increased from 23 mph to 40 mph by 5:00 p.m. with the seas being rough, with high waves.

Based on both the position of the wreck and the weather report, James P. Delgado and Robert V. Schwemmer, Co-Principal Investigators into the wreck:

There were reports after Conestoga went missing of a radio transmission from the tug, stating that it was “battling a storm and that the barge she was towing had been torn adrift by heavy seas,” and that Conestoga was heading to port. However, the Navy said that they had not heard from the tug, nor was there any evidence of a transmission.

Stern view of the shipwreck USS Conestoga colonized with white plumose sea anemones contrasting the water column. (Image: NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix)

Stern view of the shipwreck USS Conestoga colonized with white plumose sea anemones contrasting the water column.
(Image: NOAA ONMS/Teledyne SeaBotix)

The fact that the broken tow wire was twisted and not neatly spooled on the drum shows that there was a towing problem. But because it was secured on the winch, this indicates that the crew had retrieved it after the loss of the tow. This matches with the radio message that they were returning to port. It also suggests that the coal barge YC-478 had not directly been involved in sinking the Conestoga.

The position and orientation of Conestoga on the ocean bed indicates she was being steered toward protected waters in the lee of the island, or possibly toward the lighthouse station in Fisherman’s Cove. Because of the difficult approaches, this tells of how desperate the crew was and may have been their only choice.

The search

An initial inquiry asking if the tug had arrived at Pearl Harbor was mistakenly answered as yes. It had taken more than a month before authorizes realized that Conestoga was, in fact, missing.

The Navy then conducted an 11-day search with 60 ships and dozens of airplanes covering 300,000 square miles. However, the search was centered on Hawaii, where the Conestoga was thought to have been seen before it had vanished.

A lifejacket with the words “U.S.S. Conestoga” had washed up on a beach around 30 miles south of San Francisco, along with some boxes and kegs. However, the Navy had dismissed it concluding that the life preserver may have been lost overboard before the ship had even departed from Mare Island.

Then, on May 17, 1921, the steamship Senator found a lifeboat with the letter “C” on the bow some 650 miles west of Manzanillo, Mexico. However, the “letter alone proved to be inconclusive. Had the boat been recovered it would of had a serial number that would have determined if it was from Conestoga. With what is now known, given current and wind patterns, it is possible that the boat was from Conestoga and had been adrift since March 25/26,” according to the investigation.

Then, after an extensive search with all available naval and air forces, neither men nor wreckage was found. On June 30, 1921, the Commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District to conclude in a dispatch: “No trace of tug. Loss probable.” The Navy declared Conestoga lost, with all 56 souls.

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