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A November gale doomed the steamship Portland, which left Boston the night of Nov. 26, 1898 with nearly 200 onboard

Steamer Portland by Samuel Ward Stanton

The Portland, drawn in 1890 by Samuel Ward Stanton, who later died on the Titanic.

Today marks the 123rd anniversary of the start of the Steamship Portland's final voyage - which ended with its sinking and the death of all onboard in a nor'easter that exploded over the ocean not long after it left Boston Harbor's India Wharf for what was supposed to be a routine night voyage to its home port in Maine.

All 192 or 193 people aboard the Portland died, in the worst 19th-century maritime disaster off New England, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary recounts. Numerous bodies washed up soon after on Cape beaches, from Truro to Chatham, along with various pieces of ship wreckage including trunks marked "Portand." But no life boats ever made it to the beaches.

Although the national Weather Office had telegraphed a nor'easter warning up the coast earlier on Nov. 26, the Portland's captain, Hollis Blanchard set sail promptly at 7 p.m., possibly because he had so many Mainers eager to get back home after celebrating the holiday in Boston, possibly because he had recently been dressed down by his bosses at the Portland Steam Packet Co. about being too cautious in the face of potentially adverse weather ahead. After the ship disappeared and bodies washed up onshore, the Globe reported that other captains had decided to stay moored in Boston, or turned back after leaving the harbor, rather than risk the impending storm.

Blanchard had reason to be wary of rough seas - the Portland was a shallow-hulled paddle wheeler, in service since 1889, and as a seasoned captain on the Boston-to-Portland route, he knew that paddle wheelers did not do well in rough seas - a wave that hit the boat the wrong way would lift the paddles on one side out of the water, making them useless, then slam the boat back down into the sea, possibly destroying the paddles on impact.

But the day dawned sunny and although clouds gradually built up over the day, by 7 p.m., only a light snow was falling over Boston Harbor, and the Portland left India Wharf on time.

Not long after leaving the sanctuary of Boston Harbor,, the ship ran head on into one of the fiercest November nor'easters ever recorded - dozens of other ships were either forced into harbor or themselves sank in winds that reached upwards of 70 m.p.h.

An hour after leaving India Wharf, the Portland was nearing Gloucester - a fisherman off Thacher Island, near Rockport, reported spotting the ship around 8 p.m., the Globe reported.

What happened next is strictly a matter of conjecture.

One account conjectures that Blanchard knew he could go no further, but decided not to try for Gloucester Harbor, because the boat might be ripped to shreds on rocks there and so turned south, where, in the worst case, he could beach on Cape sands, giving his passengers and crew a far better chance at survival.

Or possibly, the storm disabled the Portland and the powerless ship was simply carried far away from Gloucester and further out into open waters, where waves smashed holes in the ship, dooming it.

At 7:45 a.m. the next morning, the life-saving crew at Race Point in Provincetown reported hearing "four sharp whistles from a steamer, which were recognized as a danger signal."

But the Portland never made the Cape: It sank somewhere off shore and left no survivors.

It took decades to find the location of the wreck.

In 1944, a Maine scallop dragger working about nine miles off Truro found pieces of the ship in his drag lines, and some thought the location could be announced - but the actual location wasn't found until 1998, and then confirmed by divers in 2002, somewhere in Stellwagen Bank, now a national sanctuary that stretches between Cape Ann and Cape Cod. The sanctuary has kept the exact location a secret to guard against looting.

In 2019 and 2020, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution conducted expeditions to the site.

In 2006, the National Archives and Records Administration compiled an article about the 64 crew members who died on the ship, including John C. Whitten, whose widow, Lettie, filed a claim for his last month's wages of $35, which was not enough to keep her and her four children out of the Portland Invalids Home, where she soon had to send her children away, two to live with her brothers and one to become a "ward" of another family (the records do not show what happened to her fourth child).

Book: The Wreck of the Portland (Amazon affiliate link).

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Comments

The force of the storm caused the North River to breakthrough into another channel into the Atlantic.

The old mouth of the river eventually filled in.

That is why Humarock is part of Scituate even though you can only get to it from Marshfield. The storm separated the two parts of the town.

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Voting closed 24

The Captain's "...widow, Lettie, filed a claim for his last month's wages of $35, which was not enough to keep her and her four children out of the Portland Invalids Home, where she soon had to send her children away, two to live with her brothers and one to become a "ward" of another family (the records do not show what happened to her fourth child)."

A family's breadwinner dies on the job and the family is thrown into poverty and broken up. They got 'nuthin from the employer and apparently no government support (housing,food) either. And no support from religious organizations (a neighbor once preached that there shouldn't be any government support as churches will support those in need. I almost said that was tried in the past, but didn't work out. But I chose not to get into it.).

There were also families left behind by the crew who were undoubtedly in the same situation. And the passenger's families suffered too.

Damn. Gonna up my holiday giving.

Thanks very much for the report Adam. It was painful to read, but a worthwhile.

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Voting closed 19

We have Social Security.

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Or possibly, the storm disabled the Portland and the powerless ship was simply carried far away from Gloucester and further out into open waters, where waves smashed holes in the ship, dooming it.

That makes no sense. A nor'easter would push the boat onto shore either onto Gloucester or somewhere south of it depending on how far north of Gloucester it was. But, "further out into open waters"? I don't see that.

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Voting closed 8

In a fully developed gale, surface water can be moving at up to 3 knots. This current is going to bend when it hits the shore; I can easily imagine the current from the northeast hitting Cape Ann and deflecting out into the middle of Massachusetts Bay; you'd have the wind trying to push you ashore and the current trying to sweep you out into the bay, with the net result somewhere in between. I'm guessing that with a shallow-hulled sidewheeler the wind would probably win, but I'm not an expert of any kind.

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I'm guessing that with a shallow-hulled sidewheeler the wind would probably win, but I'm not an expert of any kind.

You guessed right. A wind like that on a boat wins every time. Also, I read somewhere that bodies were strewn all over the south shore.

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Every time I see the "Portland" described as a "shallow hulled Sidewheeler,
I plan to look it up. This time, I did. The Portland at 280' X 42 X 15.5 was a typically
proportioned coastwise vessel, designed for service in the North Atlantic.
The idea that she was some kind of a fugitive from the western rivers was a
total fallacy. Those "Boats" could not exceed an 8 or 9 foot draught and,
most had less. The loss of the Portland was shocking and remains well known
because there were so few similar accidents to this well designed class of vessel.
Collisions with the shore being more common than stress of weather.

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