Ships 2


Ships 3


The Great Portland Disaster of 1898


By James Donahue


Among the worst shipwreck disasters along the New England coast was the sinking of the paddle wheel steamship Portland in a furious November gale in 1898 that claimed the lives of all 176 passengers and crew members. It was a tragedy that could have been avoided.


The Portland, a 291-foot-long steamship, was among the grand passenger and freight haulers operating along the Atlantic coast in its day. With a beam of 42 feet, the ship offered spacious comfort to passengers. It was one of two steamships owned by the Portland Steam Packet Company on regular trips between Boston and Portland. The second vessel, the Bay State, regularly made return trips so the two ships crossed paths both coming and going.


It was said that John Liscomb, the company general manager, had a reputation of having the steamers always leave on time, which may have had something to do with the tragic events of November 26, when the area was struck by what was to be known as the Blizzard of ’98.


The Portland was moored at Boston to load passengers and freight that day, with a planned departure set for 7 p.m. But word was reaching the area that afternoon that a serious storm was coming up the coast from the Gulf of Mexico. At about 5:30 p.m. Liscomb attempted to contact Captain Hollis H. Blanchard, master of the Portland, to express concerns about the storm and advised him to delay sailing for at least two hours until they know just how serious the storm was going to be. Liscomb also sent the same advisory to Captain Alexander Dennison, on the Bay State, which was preparing to sail from Portland.


As the story is told, the two captains then talked over the telephone to one another. Blanchard said it was his decision to sail at 7 p.m. as scheduled. He said he was confident that he could outrun the storm and be docked at Portland before the storm arrived. He suggested that the Bay State remain moored at Portland rather than risk steaming right into the storm before arriving at Boston.


What the two skippers and Liscomb did not know was that a second storm also was bearing down on them from the Great Lakes, and that the two low pressure centers were about to combine to generate a monster storm that would leave a fleet of ships wrecked and driven aground, and the Portland lost at sea. Dennison chose to keep his command safely in Portland’s harbor.


As passengers continued to board and the Portland’s crew prepared to sail, a revised weather report arrived just after six o’clock that said there was heavy snow in New York and that the wind had shifted to the northwest. Also the barometer was falling, which suggested a serious winter gale was developing. The Boston agent raced to the dock in a last moment attempt to stop the Portland from leaving the dock but it was too late. The ship had sailed.


The Portland steamed right into the teeth of what many mariners would call a perfect storm. The wind shifted to the northeast and blew at over 30 knots, sometimes gusting up to 60 knots. Vessels all along the coast raced for shelter. Those that didn’t make it were beached and wrecked all along the Massachusetts coast. Even ships anchored in Boston harbor were driven into the wharves and damaged by the force of the storm.


There were a few reported sightings of the Portland as it fought its losing battle against that storm. Skippers of other vessels that survived the gale told of seeing the large paddle-wheeler rolling and pitching, its flag of distress flying. Captain D. Pellier, of the schooner Edgar Randall, said the steamer almost collided with his ship shortly before midnight. He said the steamer passed close by and he could see that some of its superstructure was blown away.


The next day, after the storm began to abate, wreckage, life belts and then bodies began washing ashore on Cape Cod. Watches on the bodies were stopped at 9:15


The wreck of the Portland was found in 1989 by researchers. The ship lies in about 400 feet of water.