Cape May’s Concrete Ship’s Bell Found, Sorta
This great story that only a hand full of people know about is brought to us by Ben Miller.
A story that can finally be told…
People often forget that at one time, the SS Atlantus was a viable ship and transported untold numbers of troops across the Atlantic. They nicknamed it ‘the floating tombstone’ because of the cold and clammy feel of the concrete used to build it during the steel shortage. After the war, it was briefly repurposed as a ferry, before being retrofitted to transport coal. Contrary to popular belief, the double-hulled ship floated just fine and was used extensively.
Now, you’ve probably heard the story of how the Atlantus broke free of its moorings in a terrible storm and ran aground in 1926, but there’s a second part to that story. While the Atlantus was anchored off the Sunset Beach coast, there was a caretaker living on it and tasked with looking after the vessel. Much of the engines had been removed and it could no longer operate under its own power.
When the powerful storm surge snapped the anchor line, the ship and its caretaker were completely defenseless. The Atlantus was spun around, bobbing up and down, before it was finally thrust towards a sand bar by the tide. The ship bottomed out in the sand and as the waves crashed over the deck, it began to take on water. This increased the weight of the heavy concrete ship and further grounded it. A worker at the nearby sand plant, Joe ‘Pep’ Trolli saw the ship stranded and noticed the man on deck, frantically waving for help.
Seeing the man in distress, Trolli jumped into a nearby boat and rowed out to rescue the man. In the years that followed, it became clear that the ship wasn’t going anywhere and all attempts to free it had failed, so the Atlantus was abandoned. That’s when Pep Trolli decided to row back out to the ship, moor his boat alongside it and climb aboard.
Recognizing its significance, he removed the ship’s bell and brought it home to preserve it. Considering the tremendous weight of the bell, it was no small feat to remove it from the bell’s mounting on the ship, lower it by rope to his boat, then carry it off the beach. Nonetheless, Trolli got the job done. Few people knew what he had done and as the ship broke in half and sunk further into the sands, most just assumed the ship’s bell was lost.
In reality, the bell was in Trolli’s possession, cleaned and preserved for posterity. After his death, the bell was passed down to his son, Joe Trolli Jr., affectionately known by his friends as “Josie.” The Atlantus bell was his prized possession and for him, it held a lot of meaning. The bell was important because of its history, but I always got the impression that the connection to his father was much more important to Josie.
I promised to keep the bell’s location private, but sadly, Josie passed away last May. The bell has been passed down again and moved. Now I can tell you that he used to keep it in his garage, hanging in a prominent place so he could see it whenever he went out there.
I don’t know its physical location of the bell anymore, though I know who has it and I know how much it means to them. I will respect their privacy as I did with Josie.
The real point of this story is that a priceless piece of history was saved and so was the caretaker’s life, thanks to the quick thinking of a good man who was willing to risk his own. Joe “Pep” Trolli was a hero and it’s time he got the credit he deserves.
Thank you again to Ben Miller for writing this great article.