SS Portland

On November 26, 1898, the steamship SS Portland left India Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts, for Portland, Maine, on a regularly scheduled run. She never made it to port. The vessel sank, carrying 192 individuals to their deaths. They were among the 500 or so victims of the “Portland Gale,” an epic blizzard that packed winds of hurricane force, a storm of greater ferocity than the famed blow of 1841. Why the ship’s captain did not return to port in face of the fierce blizzard and how the ship succumbed to the elements remain a mystery. So did the wreck’s location, until underwater photography more than a century later confirmed its resting place. In a region that has recorded hundreds of ship disasters, notes renowned maritime historian Edward Rowe Snow, the loss of the SS Portland was “the worst marine tragedy of the 19th Century in New England waters.”

Commissioned in 1890, the SS Portland was a sleek wooden side-wheel steamship, 281 feet in length and 62 feet wide, displacing 2,282 tons. The ship had 168 staterooms and could carry 800 passengers. Drawing only 11 feet of water, the SS Portland’s design facilitated navigation in shallow harbors and rivers but made the craft less stable on the open sea. Its 1500-horsepower engine powered the vessel at 12– 13 knots, allowing the ship to make its regular run between Boston and Portland, Maine, in nine hours. One newspaper described the craft as “the finest vessel that will travel eastern waters.”

At 7 P.M. Saturday evening on November 26, the SS Portland left India Wharf in Boston destined for Portland, carrying 127 passengers and 65 crew members. The ship was under the command of Captain Hollis Blanchard, who had worked for the Portland Steamship Company, the vessel’s owner, for nine years as a first pilot but only recently had become the SS Portland’s master.

Captain Blanchard had seen the noon weather report that predicted snow during Saturday night but warned of no unusually dangerous conditions. The steamship company’s manager indicated that the line received its normal 3 P.M. weather report from New York by wire, which was compared with conditions in Boston and Portland. Snow was reported to the south, but the reports failed to foresee the convergence of two powerful weather systems. One low-pressure system formed over the Great Lakes and brought cold air as it swept into New England. A second and larger front originated in the Gulf of Mexico and gained energy and moisture as it moved into the Gulf of Maine.

While the midday weather was pleasant, the dual fronts combined into a raging “nor’easter” blizzard by evening, with wind gusts reaching hurricane force. Observers on the U.S. Weather Station on Block Island (off the coast of Rhode Island) recorded wind speeds of 90 miles per hour before their instrument blew away and estimated that gusts topped 110 miles per hour. Snow began to fall as the SS Portland pushed out into Boston harbor.

The steamship Kennebec, which had headed out earlier, sounded four warning blasts on its horn as it passed the Portland on its return to port. Blanchard acknowledged the signal but kept his ship’s bow pointed seaward. Once caught in the storm’s fury, with waves as high as 40 feet, the Portland was severely handicapped. Reversing direction put the ship in peril because if it turned broadside into the mountainous waves, it could capsize. The SS Portland was observed close to Thasher’s Island off Cape Ann at 9:30 P.M. but was later sighted a dozen miles southeast of this location. Blanchard apparently adopted this new heading in hope of riding out the gale in the open sea rather than attempt to put in at Gloucester harbor, as other vessels had.

A later sighting, believed to be the Portland, put the vessel off the coast of North Truro on Cape Cod on Sunday morning. It's clear the ship sank on Sunday, Nov. 27, either at around 9 a.m. or 9 p.m., because watches recovered with the bodies stopped between 9 and 10 o'clock. It's unknown, however, whether the ship capsized, broke apart, collided with one of the other lost ships, or exploded.

The “Portland Gale” inflicted terrible damage on New England, sinking upward of 400 vessels and taking perhaps 500 or more lives. Some ships simply disappeared without a trace. Coastal communities from New York to Maine were ravaged. Snow drifts higher than 15 feet were reported. Downed telegraph wires kept Cape Codders isolated from the mainland for days, hindering the effort to determine the fate of the Portland. Even the cable between the United States and Britain had broken. As no passenger manifest had been left at port, weeks elapsed before the identity of all passengers and crew were established. The tragedy spurred shipping companies to leave a list of passengers on shore and to substitute screw propeller vessels for older paddle wheelers. Screw propulsion not only was more efficient, but it also eliminated enclosures for the paddle wheels, which increased the stability of vessels in heavy seas.

The final resting place of the Portland remained a mystery for nearly a century, despite numerous attempts to locate the wreck. In 1989, John Fish, a marine historian, located the ship 20 miles north of Provincetown on Cape Cod. For years, controversy reigned as to the location of the ill-fated ship. In the summer of 2002, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, joined by the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut (UConn), solved the mystery surrounding the Portland's location. Using data from American Underwater Search and Survey, they brought back images from the sea floor that conclusively identified the remains of the steamship Portland.

Along with the loss of life, survivors agonized over questions that remain mysteries today. It will never be known why Blanchard left India Wharf that Saturday and didn't turn around when the mistake was clear. Officials of the Portland-based steamship company insisted later that they had telephoned a message for Blanchard to wait in port. Blanchard would not likely have ignored such an order, however. He may never have received the message. Some insisted, despite the company's statements, that he was ordered to sail. Blanchard did check weather forecasts, but may have been confident he would be well ahead of the storm.

Sources :
Disasters, Accidents, and Crises In American History : “A reference Guide to the Nation’s Most Catastrophic Events” by Ballard C. Campbell;;

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SS Portland SS Portland Reviewed by Tripzibit on June 07, 2010 Rating: 5

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