San Francisco

NOAA Researchers in Bay Area Discover Sunken Remains of Historic Shipwreck

Warren Galvin never knew his uncle. George Nevin had already been dead seven years when Galvin was born in San Francisco’s Richmond District.

But all his life, Galvin heard the family whispers about Nevin’s demise at sea in 1920 on the Ituna fishing steamer — photos of his 23-year-old boyish face stranding him eternally as a young man.

This week’s discovery of the underwater remains of the Ituna off the coast of San Francisco by NOAA archaeologists set off a flood of nostalgia for Galvin.

“To have someone call and say ‘I’d like to talk to you about your uncle who died 90,95 years ago,’” Galvin said in his Castro Valley home, “that’s unbelievable.”

On the other end of that call was NOAA archaeologist Robert Schwemmer who along with fellow archaeologist James Delgado, is in the midst of a two-year project to catalog many of the estimated 400 ship and plane wrecks in the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

This week, the team’s research vessel pinpointed the Ituna shipwreck using sonar images that matched the Ituna’s unique ‘champagne glass’-shaped bow. Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle equipped with a camera, the expedition was able to probe the ship’s carcass — setting eyes on its brass helm, its original triple expansion engine and the bulging load of cement still in the hold.

“First time in 95 years anybody’s seen this wreck,” Schwemmer said, peering into a monitor filling with images of the ship’s bones.

After rambling through a series of jobs, the 23 year old Nevin had taken a job with the F.E. Booth sardine canning company — a path that would place him on the Ituna on its tragic last voyage.

“He was an ambitious young man,” Galvin said, “and seemed to be into the start of a very great career.”

Like Nevin, the Ituna was on a path of constant change and discovery. The ship was built as a luxury steam yacht in Glasgow, Scotland in 1886. It was later converted to a passenger ship, and finally turned into a steam fishing trawler based in San Francisco. It was fitted with a unique trawler system that hadn’t yet been used on the West Coast.

On March 13th, 1920 the ship and its crew of 14 set out from San Francisco for Reedsport, Oregon on a fishing expedition, hauling a delivery of cement and machinery. The ship was about 24 miles outside of San Francisco when it hit a vicious storm and went down in about ten minutes.

“They describe the seams opening up in the bow and the forward hull flooding,” Schwemmer said. “And then it was every man for the lifeboat.”

Twelve of the crew piled into a lifeboat and paddled through the stormy seas to the San Francisco light boat off the coastline where they were plucked to safety.

Nevin was aboard the ship, listed as a passenger. Before the accident, he had fallen seasick and retired to his bunk.

“He was either forgotten or they didn’t have time,” Galvin said.” He went down with the ship.”

Nevin and fireman George Orton were the lone casualties of the ship, believed to be entombed in their bunks.

“These guys who live on board, it’s their home,” Delgado said. “And for two of these guys it’s also their grave.”

Galvin said over the years he’d tried to learn the story of what had happened to his uncle, but finally gave up the cause in frustration at a lack of answers.

“Here’s a case of 95 years late,” Galvin said, “we’re talking about an individual that I thought 50 years ago, that’s the last I’d ever hear of him.”

Delgado and Schwemmer recorded data, measurements and a detailed record of the Ituna. Like many of the more significant sites discovered by the team, the ship may be nominated to the National Historic Register.

On the recent expedition, as the camera poked into the Ituna’s hold, past a schools of rock fish, revealing a broken dish, Schwemmer noted the ship was well intact for having spent 95 years at the bottom of the sea.

“Looking at Ituna,” he said, “we are looking at March 13th 1920.”

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