Cold Case Solved
August 12, 2016
– San Francisco, CA
Back in 2009, a routine hydrographic survey by NOAA revealed a wreck on the ocean floor only a few miles from Southeast Farallon Island. No big surprise — hundreds of vessels have foundered over the years on or near the Rockpile. But it was only this spring that the wreck was officially identified — and a mystery 95 years old finally solved.
The NOAA/Fugro multibeam sonar survey documented a probable shipwreck with an estimated length of 52 meters (170 feet) at a depth of 185 feet.
© 2017 NOAA / Fugro
The rusted hulk is the remains of the 170-ft ocean-going tug USS Conestoga. With 56 crew aboard and a coal barge in tow, she departed the Bay on March 25, 1921, bound for Pearl Harbor. The ship was never seen again.
Originally built in 1903 for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, Conestoga was purchased by the US Navy in 1917 following the United States’ entry into World War I.
© 2017 Naval History & Heritage Command NH 71299
The search for the tug and crew was at that time the largest air-sea search ever mounted (surpassed only by the 1937 search for Amelia Earhart.) It was centered mostly around Hawaii until a lifeboat identified as belonging to the ship was found off Manzanillo, of all places — whereupon the search resumed there.
The ship’s company.
© 2017 Naval History & Heritage Command NH 71503
Ironically, it appears the Conestoga went down within hours of her departure from the Bay, possibly only minutes before finding a safe lee at the Farallones, and possibly even within sight of the mainland.
Although no shore stations picked up any radio calls from the tug, an inbound ship later reported hearing a garbled radio transmission from the Conestoga, which indicated their towline had parted and they were having a rough ride in stormy conditions.
In 2014, extensive underwater video and photos were taken of the wreck, which lies in about 200 feet of water to the south and east of Southeast Farallon. They show an upright, growth-encrusted steel hull, although most of the wooden superstructure has collapsed, which is one reason it took so long to identify the ship. Ironically, the smoking gun in this case was literally a gun. A rusty blob forward turned out to be a .50-caliber machine gun once mounted to the foredeck.
The gun was a key diagnostic artifact that served to identify the wreck as the Conestoga. The remains of the vessel have created a reef that is now a vibrant habitat for fish, coral, and other sea life.
© 2017 NOAA ONMS / Teledyne SeaBotix
The initial ID actually took place last October, as did a formal ceremony at the wreck site by Navy and NOAA officials. The official announcement in March in Washington, DC, was delayed so that the Navy Department could contact as many families of the Conestoga crew as possible. See sanctuaries.noaa.gov/news/mar16/conestoga.html for more photos and details.
This modern painting by Danijel Frka depicts Conestoga as a civilian tugboat towing schooner barges of coal for the railroad company.
© 2017 Danijel Frka / Russ Matthews Collection
The wreck is now protected as part of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004, which prevents the unauthorized disturbance of sunken military craft.
Although the loss of this vessel happened so long ago, it's a bit haunting to realize how many recreational boats have sailed so near — if not literally right over — the remains of the Conestoga and her crew on various ocean races over the years.
To learn more about the Conestoga and other vessels lost in the Gulf of the Farallones, check out the lecture by marine archaeologist James Delgado — nicknamed the 'Indiana Jones of the Sea' — at the Pier 39 Theatre on San Francisco's Embarcadero next Wednesday, August 17. Dr. Delgado will lead a virtual tour of some of the 400 shipwrecks discovered over the last three years by NOAA in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. In particular, the presentation will feature the discovery of the clipper ship Noonday and the steamers Selja and Ituna, as well as the Conestoga.
Tickets are only $10 and include one beverage and light snacks. A reception will begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by the program at 6:30 p.m. For more info, see thebayinstitute.org/film-and-lecture-series, or go to Eventbrite to buy tickets.
- latitude / jr