By Tim Kelly
As the calendar pages turn, ever closer to Halloween, the ghost stories of Ocean City grow ever louder.
Ocean City has no shortage of such stories. Some are famous, burnished by legend and years of deliberation while others are rooted in historical fact. Still others are ongoing and recent, documented in first person accounts on blogs, websites and social media.
Many of the stories focus on the beach and Boardwalk area.
Local maritime expert John Loeper called O.C.’s stretch of ocean and beach as “the graveyard of the Atlantic.” He said that as the final approach to the ports of New York and North Jersey, commercial schooners transformed our part of the Atlantic into a kind of superhighway of the cargo industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
More than 400 vessels would cruise through these seas on a given day, and with that kind of traffic shipwrecks were routine, he said.
As it turns out, ocean disasters make excellent fodder for ghost stories.
“(Ocean City) would average four shipwrecks a week,” he said, adding that the wrecks were sometimes very messy events. Along with pieces of the ships and their cargo, bodies and body parts washed ashore on a regular basis.
Loeper said the wrecks were so commonplace, they were the reason the U.S. Life Saving Service, a federal agency and forerunner to the United States Coast Guard was formed. Not to be confused with Beach Patrol lifeguards, the Life Saving Service was comprised of men who served to aid sailing vessels and crew members in distress. They went out to the wrecks in surf boats or used rope and pulley systems to transfer crew members from the wrecks to the relative safety of the beach.
“Over in Somers Point, people would see a mast of a vessel that wasn’t moving, and they would row across the bay” to search for cargo from the ships, and sometimes to aid in rescues Loeper said.
“Those who could not be identified were buried on the beach,” both by the Life Saving Station’s crews and by private individuals, he said.
“Unless they had their name and hometown embroidered on their clothes, there was no way to know who (the victims) were. So they were buried often right on the beach.”
Dead human bodies and body parts buried beneath the beach voted by national publications as “America’s best” is more fuel for the fire of the OC ghost stories.
Ghost stories and sightings abound throughout the area, according to Eileen Reeser, whose Ghost Tours candle-light stroll through downtown is one of the town’s top attractions after dark. It achieved that status by tapping into the popularity of fear as entertainment. It’s a hot-selling product all year, but especially around Halloween.
“Some people really want to believe in ghosts, and we tell the stories, and the history around them, which makes them a lot of fun to learn about.” Reeser said. “If (the stories) are entertaining and plausible and can’t (be proven or disproven), it gives people something to think and talk about.”
Ghost stories, paranormal incidents and unexplained phenomena are exploited by Hollywood, by producers of reality shows and by bestselling authors.
There are also serious researchers who seek to debunk or confirm paranormal incidents by investigating reportedly “active sites” using sophisticated video and electronic equipment. No matter how much data or how many stories are recorded, Ocean City is a prominent ground zero for such tales.
“I will say this,” Loeper said when asked if he believed in the paranormal. “If you are walking around the Veterans Memorial Park on a dark night when there is no moonlight, that area just feels very eerie to me,” he said, of the park at 5th Street and Wesley Avenue. “Really, that whole area from the Fire (Headquarters) to the Tabernacle grounds, straight through to the High School can seem pretty eerie.”
Of course, Ocean City’s most famous ghost is known as “Emily,” a purported aberration “who” shows up at the Flanders Hotel. Supposedly the spirit of a girl or young woman apparently in her late teens or early 20s who waited in vain near the hotel’s location for her soldier husband’s return from World War I.
Over the years staffers and guests have reported incidents related to Emily, also known as “the Lady in White,” ranging from unexplained slamming doors and windows to the sounds of a young woman’s laughter and singing.
Then there is the story of the “man” in City Hall, purported to be the spirit of either a former mayor or tax collector, depending on who is telling the tale. The incidents seem to take place at odd hours and when the building is largely empty of people.
Outside City Hall, the alley which runs behind the building and Asbury Avenue storefronts has been an active spot for sightings and incidents. Reportedly the ghosts of two suicide victims who supposedly jumped from the Crown Bank building and a maintenance worker who was electrocuted in the alley have been seen.
Ocean City’s most famous shipwreck, the Sindia, ran aground in December just 150 yards from the beach between 16th and 17th Streets on December 15, 1901. And though all 33 hands aboard survived, that hasn’t stopped the ghost stories attributed to the wreck.
Rumors have persisted for years the ship’s cargo might have included priceless antiques from China, solid gold Buddha statues, and silver coins belonging to John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil Company owned the ship.
What does that have to do with ghosts? Some stories claim the ship, which was on the final 150 miles of a 14-month journey from China to New York, may have been party to disturbing the graves Chinese royalty and the ghosts hitched a ride on the Sindia.
It helped the legend that a mast of the 329-ft British cargo ship, said to be the largest of its kind at the time was visible from the beach for more than 70 years. Built by the same shipbuilder that constructed the Titanic some two decades later, the Sindia came to be a local landmark.
After the steel hull of the ship cracked, it took on water and most of the vessel sunk in the sand off the beach. Only one third of the ship’s cargo was ever recovered, and this does not even take into account its rumored treasures. Chinese urns, coins and other items from the ship have continued to wash up on shore, as recently as a few years ago. All efforts to raise and remove the wreck, most of it reportedly under 40 feet of sand, have been unsuccessful.
The possibility of buried treasure just off the Ocean City beach certainly embellishes any ghost story attributed to the Sindia.
More recently, a number of ghost sightings have been posted on various websites and blogs. One woman said she had multiple encounters with “Emily” during a several-week stay at the Flanders. Another said he heard unexplained “moaning” of a person asking for help on the boardwalk near 16th, where the Sindia ran aground.
But not everyone can add to the ghost stories of Ocean City. Loeper said that in all his years working in historic buildings around town including the Life Saving Station, the Flanders, City Hall and many old homes with ties to ghost stories, he’s never seen anything that unusual.
“I’ve been in these places at many times and I’ve never seen (a ghost or other ghost-like incident)” he said. However Loeper stopped short of ruling out the existence of the paranormal. “Some things are just hard to explain,” he said.