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).