“…her loss remains unknown…” : The Mysterious Disappearance of the USS Cyclops (AC-4)

Did you know that the Cartographic Branch is home to over one million ship plans, with records spanning more than 15 distinct record groups (RGs) and over 25 separate series?  From trial curves, to booklets of general plans, to sail plans for vessels from the War of 1812, the Cartographic Branch has something for everyone….including people who love a mystery.

RG 19: Alphabetical Series of Ship Engineering Drawings, 1919-1940. USS Cyclops (AC-4). NAID: 53483983. Cover Sheet: Booklet of General Plans.

Meet the USS Cyclops (AC-4).

On first glance, the plans for this cargo vessel looks much like any other set of ship plans.  What makes this particular set of plans so interesting is that they are the only tangible, solid thing now left of this giant ship that once carried over 200 sailors.  You see, the USS Cyclops went down in the Bermuda Triangle with all hands in March of 1918, leaving us with a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

RG 19: Alphabetical Series of Ship Engineering Drawings, 1919-1940. USS Cyclops (AC-4). NAID: 53483983. Inboard Profile and Upper Deck, Booklet of General Plans.

Launched in May of 1910, the USS Cyclops was a Proteus-class collier built for the United States Navy by William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Generally speaking, colliers are a type of cargo ship designed specifically for transporting coal. However, the Cyclops was hauling manganese ore, a material much denser than coal, at the time that she was lost.

On February 16th, 1918, the ill-fated vessel left port in Rio de Janeiro heading for Salvador, Brazil.  Unfortunately, things seemed to go awry with the voyage from the very beginning.  Prior to leaving port, it had been reported that the ship was overloaded and had a cracked cylinder, but the recommendation from the repair crew at the time was to have the ship return to harbor in the United States for repairs.  Four days later, she left Salvador heading straight to Baltimore, Maryland, with no scheduled stops in between, but ended up having to make an unscheduled stop in Barbados because the ship was overloaded.  However, it was decided that they would carry on to Baltimore and the ship left Barbados, never to be seen again.  

RG 19: Alphabetical Series of Ship Engineering Drawings, 1919-1940. USS Cyclops (AC-4). NAID: 53483983. Upper Deck: Booklet of General Plans.

And we do mean, “never”.  The ship simply vanished without a trace and no debris from it ever recovered.  A magazine published a a few years after the disappearance saying,

“…Not a bit of the wreckage nor sign of any description has been found.  Usually a wooden bucket or a cork life preserver identified as belonging to the lost ship is picked  up after a wreck, but not so with the Cyclops.  She just disappeared as though some gigantic monster of the sea had grabbed her, men and all, and sent her into the depths of the ocean, and the sadness of her destruction is amplified by the absence of any wireless calls for help being picked up by any ship along the route that the Cyclops followed.” (The Santa Fe Magazine, Vol. 15, 1920.)

RG 19: Alphabetical Series of Ship Engineering Drawings, 1919-1940. USS Cyclops (AC-4). NAID: 53483983. Three Views: Booklet of General Plans.

Many theories have been put forth as to what happened to the ship and crew including having been sunk by the German Navy near St. Kitts, having soaked cargo that turned into a slurry and caused the ship to catastrophically list, a massive explosion of some type that scuttled the ship to quickly too send an SOS, or falling victim to the Bermuda Triangle.  The Navy launched a massive investigation into the disappearance of the large ship but, according to the Navy, “…her loss remains unknown” (history.navy.mil).

RG 19: Alphabetical Series of Ship Engineering Drawings, 1919-1940. USS Cyclops (AC-4). NAID: 53483983. Berth, Lower Decks, and Hold: Booklet of General Plans.

In an eerie set of coincidences, both of the USS Cyclops’ sister ships, the USS Nereus (AC-10) and the USS Proteus (AC-9), also disappeared with all hands lost in the Atlantic. At the time of her disappearance, the USS Nereus was on the same route as the doomed USS Cyclops.

For more information about Cartographic holdings relating to ship plans, please visit the Cartographic Branch’s webpage, entitled “Ship Plans in the Cartographic Research Room at College Park, MD”.

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