A team of researchers has solved a huge mystery off the Santa Barbara County coastline that began a century ago, discovering the wreckage of a ship which sank in 1917.
On June 13th, 2017 the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch was headed from L-A to San Francisco when it was hit by a passenger ship, sinking near Point Conception. Robert Schwemmer, who’s a marine archaeologist, and the West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says it was a heart wrenching day for the cutter’s crew as they had to abandon ship, and watch her sink.
The ship’s story started in 1897, when the more than 200 foot long vessel was commissioned. Equipped with deck guns and a torpedo tube, she was designed to patrol the Bering Sea.
The ship was state of the art, and after being commissioned was sent on a global tour which landed her on the front lines of the start of the Spanish-American War. The ship joined Admiral Dewey’s fleet, and fired some of the first shots of the war in Manila Bay. The McCulloch went on to patrol the Central and South Coast, chasing smugglers. While serving in Alaska, it served as not just a patrol ship, but as a floating courtroom. Then, during World War I, it was put under the Navy’s command for patrol duties.
On the fateful last day for the ship, June 13th, 1917, it was headed north from Los Angeles with a crew of 90 men. Schwemmer says both ships were sounding their fog horns, and the McCulloch slowed. When they realized they were very close to each other, both ships sounded emergency horns, and tried to reverse motors. At first, it looked like everyone was unhurt. But then, as the ship was being abandoned, a terrible discovery was made. A crew member was trapped in the wreckage. He was freed, but died a few days later at a hospital, and his grave was lost until recently when Schwemmer was able to find, and identify it.
The McCulloch slipped away into history, and no one was quite sure where. Researchers knew she was about four miles northwest of Point Conception. In 2013, some researchers got some sonar data from the area which appeared to be a shipwreck. In 2014, McCulloch was able to get another expedition by famed under explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreckage of the Titanic, to swing by, providing more evidence.
Schwemmer was able to use a training expedition with the Coast Guard, and a new remote underwater vehicle in October of 2016 to finally solve the mystery. They spotted the ship’s torpedo tube and bow, which allowed them to positively identify the vessel. The mystery had been solved.
There are no plans to try to remove artifacts from the vessel, which is protected by law.
Schwemmer says the state’s coastline is peppered with shipwrecks, and that they are much more than physical artifacts. He says they help tell the stories of their crews and passengers, stories which in many cases have been lost for decades.