(March 23, 2016) (left to right) Dr. James P. Delgado, director of Maritime History for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Dr. Robert V. Schwemmer, regional coordinator of Maritime History for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Dr. Alexis Catsambis, archaeologist at Naval History Heritage Command, and Diane Gollnitz, granddaughter of Lt. Ernest L. Jones, commanding officer of USS Conestoga (AT 54), speak with media regarding the discovery of Conestoga.
WASHINGTON -- Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with support from NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, announced that after almost 95 years, the mystery of USS Conestoga had been solved. The ship was discovered in 2009 and positively identified in 2015 in waters off of San Francisco, California. Here’s the timeline of events that led up to yesterday’s announcement at the Navy Memorial:
- 25 March 1921: at 0900, USS Conestoga left California bound for American Samoa by way of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. She never arrived to her destination.
- 26 April 1921: Conestoga was overdue in her arrival to Pearl Harbor despite miscommunication on April 6 that she had arrived safely.
- 17 May 1921: The steamship Senator came across a derelict lifeboat with a brass letter “C” on its bow at 18º15′ N, 115º42′ W, some 650 miles west of Manzanillo, Mexico, and about 30 miles off Clarion Island.
- 30 June 1921: Navy officials retroactively declared Conestoga’s loss, with all 56 souls aboard lost.
- August 2009: An expedition through NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey aboard F/V Pacific Star revealed a previously undocumented multibeam sonar target. The target appeared to be a wrecked tug.
- September 2014: Upon further investigation using remotely operated vehicles (ROV) during a Maritime Heritage expedition aboard R/V Fulmar, researchers confirmed the target was a steel steam-powered tugboat that measured approximately 170 feet in length and 26 feet in beam. Archival research provided no clues to the identity of the tug beyond that of USS Conestoga.
PACIFIC OCEAN (March 23, 2016) The wreck of the U.S. Navy tugboat USS Conestoga is seen on sonar in at a depth of 185 feet in the waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California. Conestoga departed San Francisco Bay on March 25, 1921 and vanished with 56 men. The discovery of the wreck solves a 95 year-old mystery. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of NOAA/Released)
- October 2015: As a potential U.S. Navy shipwreck, an NHHC representative joined NOAA on a follow-up survey at the site. Utilizing ROV, the survey provided further evidence towards the identification of the site as the wreck of USS Conestoga, one the Navy’s most mysterious losses. Given the features and dimensions of the wreck, including the presence of a 3-inch 50 caliber World War I-era gun, a steam-steered engine, and two Scotch marine boilers, archaeologists and researchers confirmed the wreck is that of Conestoga.
(AT-54) Men of the ship’s Gunnery Department posing with her 3/50 gun, 1921. The Sailor at left, marked me, may be Seaman 1st Class W.P. Burbage. Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.
As a U.S. Navy ship, USS Conestoga remains Navy property and is protected under the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA). The SMCA states that Conestoga, and any other Navy ship or aircraft wreck, is not to be disturbed, removed, or injured, as violators may face enforcement action for doing so without authorization. During the investigation of the wreck, no remains of the crew were found, however, the wreck site remains a maritime grave site for the 56 Sailors lost. Because Conestoga also lies within NOAA’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, it has the added benefit of resting in protected waters. The Navy will continue to monitor USS Conestoga as it does for many of its shipwrecks and aircraft wrecks to ensure continued preservation for future generations.
For more information about the USS Conestoga, including detailed reports of the wreck site, biographies of the Sailors lost and how the Navy determined it was the ship lost in 1921, click here.
(AT-54) Deck Division posed beside the ship, at San Diego, California, circa early 1921. Seated in chairs are (from left to right): Chief Carpenter’s Mate John Wesley Powell; Boatswain Harvey H. Reinbold, Executive Officer; Boatswain Roy E. Hoffses, Ordnance Officer; and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Elias Melvin Zimmerman. The Sailor marked by an arrow (top row) may be Seaman 1st Class W.P. Burbage. Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.