118 years ago, the sailing ship Sindia ran aground in the early morning hours of December 15, 1901 on the beach in Ocean City near 17th street. It has long been said the captain and crew lost control of the ship in bad weather, possibly due to early holiday drinking. A different theory involving treasure points to an intentional stranding.
John Loeper is vice president of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association and the man responsible for the preservation of Life Saving Station 30 on the corner of 4th St. and Atlantic Ave. in Ocean City. He points to several pieces of information that contradict the traditional narrative and offer new insights on the ships final voyage.
The Sindia was built in Ireland in 1887 by Harland and Wolff, the same company that constructed the Titanic. Originally a coal-fired vessel, the Sindia was later transformed into a sailing vessel, opening space below decks to increase her cargo capacity.
At the time of her final voyage, the Sindia was owned by John D. Rockefeller's Anglo-American Oil Company. She was meant to sail from Shanghai, China via Japan to New York City. In that era ships often signaled to one another at sea, marking the contact in their logs.
Only one other ship spotted the Sindia, off of Brazil, in its entire journey. That fact seems unusual to Loeper unless the Sindia was purposely staying outside standard shipping lanes.
Further suspicion is raised by an Ocean City Life-Saving Station report that reflects much better weather conditions than previously thought with seven schooners and one steamer passing the day of the Sindia wreck with no issues at all.
Loeper believes Rockefeller had the Sindia load two hundred tons of Chinese trade dollars, silver coins similar to the Morgan silver dollar, in Shanghai where he was able to purchase them for a pittance towards the end of the Boxer Rebellion. These were listed in the ship's manifest as cases of manganese ore, a product made both better and cheaper in the United States.
The ship's captain, Allan MacKenzie then sailed towards New York outside traditional shipping lanes in order to avoid prying eyes. When MacKenzie sighted the Atlantic City Light, he turned the Sindia towards shore, furled all but a few sails, pushed through the outer sand bars and brought his ship to rest in the surf parallel to the beach at low tide.
A cooperating westerly wind listed the ship slightly towards sea where a tug and barge out of New York were able to off-load several hundred cases of cargo, details unseen, in the first few days. This cargo was reported as bamboo rods and mats, the same stuffs the salvage crew later chucked unwanted into the surf as if it were valueless.
Loeper hypothesizes Rockefeller then could have off-loaded the silver in some backwater, unseen by customs officials, thus avoiding fees and taxes. He would have then used this influx of cash to fund his development of oil fields in west Texas.
In the 1980's, a salvage operation sifted four or five buckets worth of silver coins out or the sands over the Sindia. Coins not listed on her manifest.
We may never know what truly happened to the Sindia or what she carried in her holds. The Sindia lies buried just off the beach, but those sands are controlled by a network of authorities and the ship herself is still under the claim of her insurer. The cost of salvage is high and without a definitive payoff, the Sindia is likely to keep her secrets...and her treasure.