Monday, October 18, 2010

The Steamer Portland

The steamer Portland was built at Bath, ME in 1889 for the Boston-Portland run and was the pride of the New England coastal steamer fleet. She was strongly built, outfitted with the finest furnishings, and was run by an excellent crew. However, like the other big sidewheel steamers popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, her long, shallow wooden hull and massive overhanging sponsons (housing her paddlewheels) made her vulnerable to rough seas.

Portland departed Boston for the final time at 7 p.m. on 26 Nov 1898, crowded with passengers returning home after the Thangsgiving holiday. At the time of her departure the weather was worsening, but had not yet deteriorated to the point that sailing was deemed inadvisable. As she steamed northeast towards Portland, however, conditions quickly worsened. At 9:30 p.m. she was sighted passing Thatcher's Island, a short distance northeast of Boston, her progress clearly hampered by the deteriorating weather. Although she was still making headway against the storm at this sighting, she probably did not get far before her progress was stopped.
Between 11 and 11:45 p.m. Portland was sighted three times, but this time to the southeast of Thatcher's Island - she was being driven south by the storm. When sighted at 11:45 p.m., she is said to have shown severe storm damage, especially to the superstructure. By this time conditions on the steamer must have been dreadful, and all aboard must have known they were in grave danger. Unable to make progress against the storm and unable to make for safe port, Portland's only hope lay in working her way offshore and riding out the storm at sea. Her attempts to reach the open sea accounted for her slow movement to the east between the 9:30 and 11:45 sightings.
At 5:45 a.m. the following morning, lifesavers on Cape Cod heard four blasts of a steamer's whistle. It is now believed the whistle was that of the doomed Portland. In the course of the night the storm had driven her even further backwards, so she was now far southeast of Boston. Between 9:00 and 10:30 that morning the eye of the storm passed over, and several persons claim to have seen Portland wallowing five to eight miles offshore, clearly in great peril. No further sightings were made that day, as the storm closed in once again.
At 7:30 that night, more than 24 hours after Portland had sailed, a lifesaver on his regular beach patrol found one of the steamer's lifebelts washed up on the beach. Fifteen minutes later several fourty-quart dairy cans were found in the surf. At 9:30 doors and woodwoork from Portland were found. Around 11:00 the rising tide brought in massive quantities of wreckage, giving clear evidence that Portland had been lost. It is said that this tragic news was communicated to the world via a bizarre relay - by telegraph across the trans-Atlantic cable to France, then to New York via another undersea cable, and from there on to Boston - for the telegraph cables between Cape Cod and Boston had been blown away by the storm.

All those aboard Portland, believed to be a total of 191 passengers and crew (the only passenger list was lost with the ship), were killed. Eventually 36 bodies were recovered along the beaches.
Many of the bodies wore wristwatches that had stopped at 9:15. It is unclear, however, if this indicates the ship was lost at 9:15 a.m., or at 9:15 p.m.. Although there are several reports of the ship being sighted, afloat, between 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. that day, the exact times of those sightings are not known. If any of those sightings took place after 9:15 a.m., then the ship must have survived until 9:15 p.m. that day, some 26 hours and 15 minutes after she had started her doomed voyage. However, Portland would not have carried enough fuel to remain at sea, in storm conditions, for over 24 hours. She could have burned furnishings, interior bulkheads, and other wooden materials to keep the boilers running, but the quantity of this material washed ashore tends to indicate this action was not taken.
It is also highly questionable whether she could have held together for 24 hours, given the terrible sea conditions. Still, the fact that major debris did not begin to wash ashore until 9:30 p.m. suggests the Portland had survived into the night - surely, if she had been wrecked at 9:15 a.m., debris would have been washed ashore in the morning. Because the exact time of the final sightings cannot be firmly established, it is impossible to conclusively determine the exact time of Portland's loss - either 9:15 a.m., or 9:15 p.m., on Sunday, 27 Nov 1898.
Portland's remains were eventually located on the seafloor about seven miles offshore, and have since been explored. The small schooner Addie E. Snow was also lost during the storm, and her remains lie less than 1/4 mile from Portland's grave. It is thought that the two vessels may have collided, hastening their ends.
The tragedy of the Portland was deeply felt in the New England seafaring community, and lead to many changes. Most significantly, the adoption of steel-hulled, propeller-driven steamers was greatly hastened, especially on the rugged "outside" or "Down-east" runs. The sidewheel steamers lasted for many more decades, but increasingly on "inside", or protected, runs.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As a fellow genealogist and writer I am thankful for your high quality writing and historical sharing. This post is especially notable for me because of family legend I am working to prove or disprove regarding the schooner Philomena Manta.

    If you know of a resource in-which the captain and crew might be documented for such schooners out of Provincetown at that time period, might you be willing to share the link or name of archive repository where it may be found?

    Sincerely, Lynn
    Researching Cape Cod and New England families of Caton/Caetano, Silva, daLuz, Hatch, Sidelinger, Levensaler, Light/Liecht, et. al.