Steamer Portland Lost In A New England Hurricane
By James Donahue
Hurricanes are rare along the North Atlantic
coast of the United States, but they do happen. The storm that ravaged the area on November 26-27, 1898, was named the Portland
Gale because it sank the coastal steamship Portland and took 191 souls to the bottom with it.
That storm, which packed winds well over
70 miles an hour, sank about 140 other vessels from Cape Cod north to Portland, Maine, and took over 200 lives. The storm
blew down houses, littered the coast with wreckage of ships both large and small, tore out telegraph lines, washed out railroad
track, and at Scituate, a small community south of Boston the wave action was so powerful it altered the coastline by cutting
a new inlet from the sea to the North River.
The Portland, under the command of a Captain
Blanchard, steamed out of Boston harbor at 7 p.m. on Nov. 26, even as the storm was building. Some mariners questioned the
wisdom of the captain because they said a falling barometer that evening was making it clear that a major storm was building.
Captain Blanchard probably felt secure since
the nine-year-old steamer under his command was the pride of the New England coastal steamer fleet. The Portland, built at
Bath, Maine, was strongly built and outfitted with the finest of furnishings. But like the other large sidewheel steamers
popular in that period, she had a long, shallow wooden hull and massive overhanging sponsons housing her paddlewheels, making
it vulnerable to rough seas.
The Portland was crowded with passengers
returning home after the Thanksgiving holiday as she steamed out of Boston harbor and turned northeast toward Portland. By
9:30 p.m., the storm was growing. The steamer was sighted off Thatcher’s Island, a short distance northeast of Boston,
which meant that she was already fighting to gain progress against the deteriorating weather.
The old reports note that Portland was seen
at least three times after that, as late as 11:45 p.m., and now to the southeast of Thatcher’s Island. It was obvious
that instead of steaming northward, she was being driven south by the storm. When last seen, the shit was showing severe storm
damage to the superstructure.
By this time the ship was unable to make
progress against the storm or to make for a safe port. The Captain Blanchard’s only choice was to turn his ship into
the gale and attempt to ride out the storm.
We can only imagine the horrors experienced
by the passengers and crew of that ship that long night as the vessel was literally pounded to a wreck by that hurricane.
At 5:45 a.m. the next morning lifesavers at Cape Cod heard four blasts of a steamer’s whistle. It was believed that
the whistle was that of the doomed Portland, which by then was blown so far off course it was southeast of Boston.
Just when and where the Portland sank will
always remain an unknown. The first debris from this wreck was spotted when one of the steamer’s lifebelts washed up
on the beach at 7:30 p.m. that evening. Later several forty-quart dairy cans were observed in the surf. After this doors and
woodwork from the smashed superstructure were found.
Strangely, the news of the disaster reached
Europe via the trans-Atlantic cable before it was known in Boston because the telegraph cables between Cape Cod and Boston
had been blown down by the storm.
Only 36 bodies were recovered although a
total of 191 passengers and crew were believed aboard the Portland when it sank. In those days the ship’s manifest,
including the passenger list, was carried aboard the ships so an exact count could not be made.