The vessel had been built in 1904 at Sparrows Point, Maryland and was purchased in 1917 by the U.S. Navy for use in the First World War. After spending much of the war in the vicinity of the Azores, where she worked out of the naval base, the tug was moved to the Pacific in 1920. At the time of its disappearance in March 1921, the USS Conestoga was taking a barge of coal from Mare Island Naval Shipyard to Pearl Harbor.
The ship never arrived at Pearl Harbor, and the Navy launched a massive search, covering some 300,000 square miles. Some clues were found: a badly damaged lifeboat that came from a ship whose name started with C was found 650 miles off the coast of Mexico; a life jacket marked USS Conestoga was found washed ashore with some other debris on a beach 30 miles south of San Francisco; and a radio message – passed along by another ship – mentioned rough seas and the loss of the barge. But these scattered clues were disregarded or explained away, and the ship was not found. The Navy officially declared the ship lost at sea with all hands on June 30, 1921.
In 2009 NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey was surveying the area around the Farallon Islands when it detected a probable shipwreck that was previously unknown. By October 2015, a team put together from several different government agencies was able to confirm the shipwreck’s identity. It was the long-lost USS Conestoga.
Before the discovery of the wreck was officially announced, the government actually made a tremendous effort to locate the families and descendants of the missing crew. An article from Smithsonian magazine explains:
They wanted to inform the families personally about what had happened before they heard it on the news. “I’ve put down the phone and cried as they’ve cried—it may be 95 years, but for some of these families it’s not that long.” The team worked with a genealogist to track down the crew’s family members and descendants and have successfully located relatives of about half of the families so far. Their outreach to family members is ongoing, and they hope the announcement of the discovery will help them connect with other relatives as well.
I do hope that as more time passes, technology will allow more of these missing ships to be found. It would do wonders for patching holes in our historical knowledge, as well as giving these families some closure. And of course the less stuff that gets attributed to the Bermuda Triangle or UFOs or whatever, the better.