The Night the Sindia Went Down (Sort of)

The Night the Sindia Went Down (Sort of)

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As depicted in an early 20th Century postcard, a man and a boy fish near the partially buried wreck of the cargo ship Sindia. (Photo courtesy of Ocean City Historical Museum)

 By Tim Kelly                                             

Ocean City’s most famous shipwreck really wasn’t a shipwreck at all. At least not in the traditional sense most people think of.

The Sindia, a 329-foot sailing cargo ship, actually ran aground off Ocean City, 117 years ago to the day this Saturday. It settled not far from the beach between 16th and 17th streets and parts of the ship remained visible to beachgoers as late as the 1980s. Today the ship and much of its cargo lie buried beneath the sand.

That much is undisputed fact.

The rest of the Sindia saga is steeped in rumor, legend and conspiracy theories, which could explain why its story – filled with holes as it may be – remains a staple in Ocean City lore.

“The thing that interests people is it has quite a mystique about it,” said John Loeper, a local historian and maritime expert.

Jeff McGranahan, executive director of the Ocean City Historical Museum, which houses an extensive Sindia exhibit and a fine collection of artifacts from the doomed vessel, believes the ship’s story grabs Ocean City residents and visitors alike because “it is physically there.”

“It was visible to (beachgoers and Boardwalk strollers) for generations. It serves as a reminder of Ocean City’s maritime past and the strength and power of the sea,” McGranahan said.

Although it’s been a long time since the Sindia was a working cargo ship, the vessel’s hold on the city remains. We have a Sindia Restaurant, a Boardwalk pavilion bearing the ship’s name, even Sindia Road. 

On Saturday, Ocean City will mark the anniversary of the Sindia shipwreck on Dec. 15, 1901, with an open house at the recently restored U.S. Life-Saving Station 30 at the corner of Fourth Street and Atlantic Avenue.

There, Loeper will make presentations about the wreck and the successful mission to save all 33 crewmembers. He is scheduled to speak at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.

U.S. Life-Saving Station 30, where surfmen were dispatched to save the crew members of the Sindia, will hold an open house and lectures about the wreck on its 117th anniversary Saturday.

In addition to Loeper’s talk and discussions of all things Sindia, the Life-Saving Station, now a museum, will display a fully equipped 26-foot surf boat, very close to an exact duplicate of the one used in the rescue.

“We have the names of all the men who were involved in the operation, and all of the equipment they used in the rescue,” Loeper said.

The facility also includes a restored Keeper’s quarters, which in 1901, was a man named John Mackie Corson. Members of the Life Saving Service, the forerunner to the U.S. Coast Guard, were called upon to rescue sailors trapped on distressed vessels.

The stretch of the North Atlantic off Ocean City was the Interstate 95 of its day, a major shipping corridor, according to Loeper.

“At least 100 ships would sail through Ocean City on any given day,” he said. “You could sit on the beach and watch dozens of cargo vessels pass through.”

Construction of the Sindia was completed in 1887, and the four-masted sailing ship was launched as the largest cargo-carrying vessel in the world at the time. The Sindia was built at the same Northern Ireland yard where another gigantic doomed ship, the passenger liner Titanic, was launched for its one and only voyage in 1912.

McGranahan said the Sindia’s last trip originated in Shanghai, China, stopped in Japan, then sailed across the Pacific Ocean and around Cape Horn in South America and on toward its home port, New York City. Somewhere on the final leg of its journey, McGranahan said, the Sindia ran into a fierce nor’easter storm as it approached Ocean City.

“By the time it reached the ocean off 17th Street, the keel was already broken apart and she was taking on slurry, a mixture of sand and ocean water,” he said.

Jeff McGranahan, executive director of the Ocean City Historical Museum, stands next to a model of the Sindia that is part of a permanent exhibit about the famous shipwreck. 

Sindia’s captain, Allan MacKenzie, navigated the vessel closer to the beach, across a sand bar and at approximately 1 a.m. it became lodged in the sand at a spot approximately 150 yards from the beach.

“People could hear it,” Loeper said. “Think about the noise a flag makes flapping in the wind and just imagine the sound of 10,000 square feet of canvas.”

Corson first attempted to send out a breeches buoy, a kind of rescue capsule attached to ropes and sent out to the wreck from the beach. But the Sindia was listing in the high winds and the lines could not be properly secured.  Instead, the surfmen rowed out to the wreck, loaded crew members onto the surf boats and delivered the men back to the safety of the beach.

Only a few hours after the ship ran aground, the hull broke apart. Much of the ship became inundated with water and sank into the sand almost immediately.

From there, legend replaces fact. The Sindia’s cargo hold carried silks, porcelain, kerosene and ceramics.  But rumors persist about 10,000 pounds of gold, jade dogs and priceless porcelain vases, and other treasures.

At the time of the sinking, the ship was owned by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Rumors persist the ship was loaded with contraband treasures looted from Chinese temples taken at the time of the Boxer Rebellion.

Loeper said Rockefeller’s men showed up at the wreck almost immediately and may have recovered silver, gold, and other precious materials, despite the fact that the waters off Ocean City were considered to be “the middle of nowhere” in 1901.

Loeper thinks Capt. MacKenzie “parked” the ship in a spot where Rockefeller’s men could easily get to it.

The ship’s manifest indicates the cargo included 200 tons of manganese ore, a product produced better and cheaper in the United States than in China. There was no reason to bring all that magnesium ore from Asia. The thought was the so-called ore was listed as a cover-up to mask the treasures the boat supposedly actually contained.

“As the story is re-told, the cargo becomes more valuable and the drama of the incident is heightened,” Loeper said. “It’s like the old game of whisper down the lane.”

With that said, Loeper believes there is something to the rumors. Because the cargo was housed in containers and the ship sank so fast, only about one third of the cargo was ever recovered. 

“The stories of the wreck have a lot of red flags,” Loeper said. 

Beachgoers gaze at the wreck of the Sindia shortly after it ran aground in Ocean City on December 15, 1901. (Photo courtesy of City of Ocean City website)

From time to time items have washed up or been recovered, including some Chinese coins of the period, supposedly not listed on the manifest. The majority of the ship’s supposed booty lies about 40 feet beneath the surface of the ocean floor.

For years after the sinking, portions of the ship were still visible from the beach, especially at low tide, keeping the wreck on the minds of locals and vacationers.         

The ship sank quickly and continued to sink over the years. There is supposedly an earlier shipwreck located even farther down in the sand beneath the Sindia, and pieces of the two wrecks may have co-mingled. 

Attempts to salvage the ship have been unsuccessful so far. However, Loeper feels that a salvage company could do it. The process would be so expensive, he said, that no treasure hunter has yet been willing to bet the recovery would justify the cost.

“And then there are agencies like the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the matter of riparian rights and the City of Ocean City, Loeper said. “All of the (regulators and agencies) considerations would have to be sorted out.”

Until that happens, the Sindia and its contents will remain one of the most mysterious chapters in Ocean City history.