A Navy ship lost for nearly 100 years has just been found

The wreckage of the USS Conestoga, a Navy tug that also served as a minesweeper and fleet tender in World War I, has been found off the coast of California 95 years after the ship was lost with all hands. It was found 2,000 miles from where it was presumed lost.

Conestoga was laid down in 1903 in Maryland and launched in Nov. 1904 as a civilian tug. In 1917, the Navy purchased and commissioned the ship for minesweeping duties.

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U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

During the war Conestoga served on the East Coast, transporting supplies and guns, escorting convoys to the Caribbean, and taking part in patrols. She carried a 3-inch deck gun to use against enemy ships.

After the war she continued to serve in the Atlantic until she received orders to American Samoa. Unfortunately, the ship would never make it there.

Conestoga underwent alterations and a refit in 1920 in preparation for the long trip to American Samoa, then headed for Mare Island, arriving Feb. 17, 1921 after a stop in San Diego. At Mare Island Conestoga received final repairs and supplies and headed for Pearl Harbor on Mar. 25, the final scheduled stop en route to American Samoa.

This was the last time the ship was seen afloat. It was scheduled to arrive Apr. 5 at Pearl Harbor and was erroneously reported to have arrived Apr. 6. On Apr. 26, it was clear that something had happened to the ship and the Navy launched a search.

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U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

The fleet at Pearl Harbor and planes stationed at Hawaii took part in the operation. A garbled distress call heard on Apr. 8 made the Navy believe that the ship was near Hawaii and so the search centered there.

After the Navy gave up Conestoga as lost, a mystery hung over the fate of the ship for nearly 95 years. But an Aug. 2009 coastal survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spotted a wrecked ship near Southeast Farallon Island. The Farallon Islands form an island chain 30 miles from the San Francisco Coast.

In Sep. 2014, a remotely operated vehicle was used to photograph the site and an Oct. 2015 survey collected more information. Some details of the wreck, including the lack of a 3-inch gun on the deck, made researchers think it wasn’t the Conestoga. When a researcher went through the footage carefully, he spotted the mount for the weapon and a hole where it probably fell through the deck.

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The USS Conestoga‘s 3-inch, 50-caliber deck gun. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

The mount, combined with distinct features of the engines and boilers, finally allowed the Navy to say with certainty that they had found their lost ship, 2,000 miles from the original search area.

Damage to the ship suggests that it encountered a sudden storm soon after it left the California coast to cross the Pacific. Naval researchers believe that the ship was heading to the Farallon Islands to escape the storm when the rudder was damaged and it lost the ability to steer. The bilge pumps also failed, dooming the ship.

The ship’s wreckage and the remains of the 56 sailors lost when it sank are now protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act. Officials have said they have no plans to recover the wreckage or otherwise disturb it.

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