After 95 Years, Lost Tugboat Found Off The Coast of California – mystery solved!

On Good Friday 1921, the U.S.S. Conestoga left the Mare Island, CA, Navy yard with 56 seamen headed for Pearl Harbor. At 3:25 p.m., it passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. The ocean going tugboat that once hauled coal barges for a Pennsylvania railroad now headed into the Gulf of the Farallones, into heavy seas.

The 17-year-old boat had been heavily used and now was known as a “wet boat,” one that takes water on easily. At 4 p.m., against heavy winds and large waves, the Conestoga passed Point Bonita and was never heard from again. Now, 95 years later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced, together with the Navy, that they have located the wreck a few miles from Southeast Farallon Island, near the coast of California.

The announcement was made in a ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, DC. Family members of the lost sailors were in attendance.

“It is so overwhelming for all of us,” said Diane Gollnitz, 73, of Lutherville, MD. She is the granddaughter of the ship’s captain, Lt. Ernest Larkin Jones. “It connects the past of 95 years ago, and all the stories we were told, with the future,” she said. “My grandchildren are here.”

The site of the wreck is in NOAA’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. It was imaged by sonar during a survey in 2009 and then examined by aquatic robots in 2014 and 2015, according to James P. Delgado, director of maritime heritage with the Office of National Maritime Sanctuaries.

Research into the identity of the wrecked vessel was complicated by the fact that the Navy had determined that the ship likely sunk 2,000 miles away. Despite that red herring, the wreck was confirmed to be the Conestoga in October. The disappearance was a long-standing, tragic mystery. No trace of the crew ever surfaced.

In 1921, it took a month before anyone even realized that the ship was even missing; it was only when it failed to show up in Pearl Harbor that a search was begun, according to a report about the discovery compiled by Delgado and his colleague in the NOAA, Robert V. Schwemmer.

At the time, the Navy spent 11 days searching for the vessel with 60 ships and dozens of airplanes. The search area was 300,000 square miles. A mistaken sighting of the ship near Hawaii meant the search took place around the islands instead of near the California coast, where it was eventually found. On June 30, 1921, the Conestoga was declared lost with all hands.

The wreck turned up on the NOAA sonar survey in 2009. Schwemmer only knew about the wreck because a friend pointed it out in 2012.

Schwemmer keeps a large database of shipwrecks as the regional coordinator of NOAA’s five West Coast marine sanctuaries. The image from the 2009 NOAA sonar survey showed a vessel, 170 feet long, resting in 200 feet of water, 30 miles from San Francisco. Schwemmer’s database had no record of a wreck in that location. (Schwemmer did have the Conestoga in his database, but it was shown to have sunk in Hawaii.)

It was intriguing enough to keep him investigating. So he added it to his list of sites to be examined. He planned several wreck sites to check out with Delgado. They had no idea that one was the Conestoga.The next September, they examined the site with an underwater robot. The on-board cameras showed the men that it was a tugboat they were looking at. They could tell from the curve of the bow and the traces of where the wooden “rub rails” had once been attached to the boat to protect it from contact with other ships.

It was an older boat and probably coal-fired. It was larger than most tugs, too. In the video feed, the men saw a big steam engine, a towing winch, and a square propeller stowed on the deck. The propeller was a clue that the ship had not been scuttled. Something so valuable would have been removed before a ship was intentionally sunk.

The tugboat had obviously been wrecked, but the men were no closer to knowing what ship it was or what the circumstances of the wreck were. After the expedition, the two men flew to a maritime heritage conference in Norfolk, VA. They continued to research to determine the identity of the vessel they had found.

Schwemmer scanned old newspapers for reports of large tugboats sinking off California while he was online in his hotel room. He found nothing. He expanded his search to include tugboats that had sunk anywhere and came across a story in the San Diego Union about the Conestoga. The article mentioned that the ship had stopped at the Navy’s Mare Island on its way to Pearl Harbor.

The Conestoga was not a familiar wreck to Schwemmer. He believed it had sunk near Hawaii. Still, he looked the ship up on Google and found that it was 170 feet long, just like the vessel they were investigating. He realized that he had solved a mystery and had found the Conestoga.

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The Conestoga was transporting 56 servicemen who to the American Samoa via Pearl Harbor when it sunk.The crew was large for a tugboat. But round-the-clock watches were necessary for oceanic voyages. Also, some of the passengers were Navy. Lt. Jones, 41, was the son of Kansas homesteaders. Gollnitz recalls that “he was born in a landlocked state and used to read books, I’m told, of the sea. So he joined the Navy.”

He enlisted in 1902 and worked up to lieutenant, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. Jones had been married to Loretta Fogerty of Newport, RI, for seven years. They had an infant daughter named Paula, who had just been christened. Gollnitz has a picture of her mother in her christening dress, held by Jones while he smokes a cigar. “It’s the only one I have of my mother with her father,” she said.

The crew of the Conestoga came from across the country, according to biographies compiled by NOAA genealogist Lisa Stansbury. They came from families that had immigrated from Italy, Hungary, Norway, and Denmark. Walter Tender James Flynn, 41, was born in Ireland. His first language was Irish. He had joined the Conestoga only 12 days before it sunk. He was replacing another sailor whose enlistment was likely up.

Fireman 1st Class William Walter Johnson, 29, from Booville, MO, had just arrived on board on March 25.Fireman 3rd Class, Louis Anthony Marchione, 21, from Brooklyn, sent his pay home to help his family. His parents received his last letter three days after the ship had disappeared. Mess Attendant 1st Class Edward Wilson, of Pensacola, FL, was one of 16 children. He was 17 when he enlisted in 1919. As Jones sailed from Norfolk through the Panama Canal to San Diego, his wife and daughter traveled across the country to say goodbye.

Gollnitz said, “They weren’t going to see him for years. He was going to be stationed in the American Samoa. And my grandmother and mother saw him off.” A photographer took a series of photos of Jones and his crew while they were stopped in San Diego.

Gollnitz’s mother never remembered him. “She…tried her best to remember. She was shown pictures, of course, and was told about him, but couldn’t remember.” There are indications on the wreck that suggest it may have been towing a barge. This would have complicated its situation. The NOAA, however, has not found a barge of that vintage in the area.

The wind was blowing 40-48 mph that day and the waves were high. The NOAA report states that the rough seas probably washed over the ship and may have smashed in the wheelhouse windows. The crew would not have been able to pump the water out fast enough. Jones was likely making for the shelter of Southeast Farallon Island, which had a lighthouse. The Conestoga sank three miles away.

A lifeboat with the letter “C” was later found off the Mexican coast. A life preserver from the Conestoga and kegs of provisions washed up in Monterey, CA. The evidence was inconclusive, though. The search for survivors ended up taking place thousands of miles away.

In 1958, Gollnitz and her mother sailed from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor to Thailand to meet her father, who was stationed there in the Army. When they neared Pearl Harbor, where the ship was thought to have been lost, Gollnitz’s mother became emotional. “You’re looking out at the sea and wondering, ‘Is he here?’ She felt she was the closest to him then,” Gollnitz recalled.

They never realized, she said, that when they steamed out of San Francisco, “that’s when we were the closest.”