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New Expedition Gathers More Information On 100+ Year Old Shipwreck Off Santa Barbara County Coastline

(NOAA/USCG/VideoRay photo)
Part of the wreckage of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch off of Point Conception

Wreckage of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch added to National Register of Historic Places

A remote control unmanned sub plowed through the ocean off of Point Conception earlier this month, on a unique mission. It's the latest phase of an effort to learn more about the more than 100 year old shipwreck of a Coast Guard cutter.

The McCulloch sank following an accident in 1917.

Robert Schwemmer is a maritime archaeologist who’s the West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His efforts led to the discovery of the wreckage.

The ship was commissioned in 1897. The government was so proud of the new vessel it was sent on an around the world cruise. But, in 1898 the Spanish-American war started. U.S. Commodore George Dewey recruited the McCulloch to join his fleet.

It was supposed to be on hand to tow damaged ships out of danger. But, an onboard fire gave awaits it position, and it ended up in a gun battle which was part of the defeat of a Spanish fleet at Manila Bay.

McCulloch became a West Coast Coast Guard patrol ship. The United States was in World War I on the fateful day it was lost off the Santa Barbara County coastline. It was sailing from Los Angeles to the Bay Area when it encountered heavy fog near Point Conception. It was hit by a southbound passenger ship, the Governor.

Everyone got off of the McCulloch. But, it’s heartbroken crew watched it sink in less than an hour.

(Photo Courtesy San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)
The Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch sinking near Point Conception on June 13, 1917

One crew member died from injuries suffered in the accident. Schwemmer found his unmarked gravesite in Southern California, and is now working to get a marker for it.

The site of the wreckage was a mystery for nearly 100 years.

Schwemmer had some ideas where the wreckage might be located. A sonar scan in the area detected a possible hit. He says while on another research project, he had the vessel pass by, which supported the theory about the location.

It was confirmed with the use of a remote submersible vehicle.

Schwemmer worked with Coast Guard historians, as well as Coast Guard and NOAA crews on the exploratory missions. Their work just recently led to the wreckage being added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The national, as well as state designations help commemorate the ship’s role in history. They also provide protections against people tampering with it, and set the stage for resources to help preserve the wreckage.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.