Perhaps the most famous of New England ship disasters of the 19th century was the sinking of the steamer Portland. It was built in 1889, and carried passengers and cargo between Boston and Portland, Maine during the heyday of the steamship era. At over 280 feet long and 42 feet wide, the Portland was one of the largest and most luxurious steamers in New England, able to accommodate up to 800 passengers.
On November 24, 1898, Thanksgiving Day, the day started clear and cold over the New England coastline, but, as the weekend progressed, two storm systems, one from the Great Lakes and the other from the south, would came together over the New England coast producing one of the worst storms New England had ever seen. By Saturday, November 26, the seas off Boston had already begun to swell.
Later that evening the two storms quickly collided over the New England coast, a kind of “perfect storm system”, becoming one of the worst recorded nor ’easter storms in history. Several ship captains, in their own battles to stay afloat that night, reported seeing the Portland pitching in the rough seas. The ship likely got no farther than Cape Ann along the Massachusetts North Shore before being driven off course, turning east to avoid the rocky coastline. Keeper Whitten of Thacher Island Twin Lights, near Rockport, Massachusetts, claimed to have seen the Portland from the north tower about a mile off Thacher Island before she was out of site in the storm.
At 11 PM on Staurday, an account was later given of the Portland almost colliding with the fishing schooner Grayling, one of the vessels that had survived and rode out the storm at sea, according to the captain of the schooner.
The winds increased to hurricane force, forcing the Portland further and further south until, by Sunday, on November 27th, she was floundering off the coast of Cape Cod. The ship’s lights probably failed, and it would have been close to impossible to launch life rafts. With such high winds and huge waves the captain would not have been able to turn around without getting capsized by the giant waves.
By Sunday evening, bodies and wreckage from the Portland began washing up between the Race Point and Peaked Hill Bars lifesaving stations on Cape Cod. It was believed the ship sank on Sunday, Nov. 27, around 9 a.m., because watches recovered with the bodies stopped between 9 and 10 o’clock. At the time, it was still unknown whether the Portland capsized, broke apart, exploded, or collided with one of the other lost ships. It was also not clear how many passengers were aboard, since the only passenger list was on the ship. As the days followed, newspapers printed lists of those thought to be on board and descriptions of bodies that had washed ashore.
The storm lasted more than 30 hours and packed coastal wind gusts of 100 mph. The storm buried much of New England in 2 feet of snow, washed away coastal buildings and destroyed neighborhoods, sank or grounded hundreds of boats and ships and killed more than 400 people. The blizzard had destroyed telegraph and telephone lines from Cape Cod, and it buried or washed out railroad tracks. Finally news started to get out about the fate of the Portland.
With no survivors from the tragedy, later accounts would print stories that the Captain had sailed against the orders of the general manager of the company because he was eager to get home to Maine to a family reunion. Other accounts suggested that the shipping line itself, not wanting to strand holiday passengers in Boston, ordered the Captain to sail against his better judgment.
The storm of 1898 was one of the worst storms New England had ever seen. Over 140 ships were lost in the storm. But with the sinking of the Portland, with nearly 200 crew and passengers perished, the Gale of 1898 has been known as the “Portland Gale.” To this day it is not known exactly how many passengers were aboard or who they all were. The only passenger list was aboard the vessel.
As a result of this tragedy, as with most, sometimes positive things come out to avoid the same issue. New regulations were established afterwards for all passenger ships to leave a second list of passengers ashore before they depart, and a list to be sent to their destination as well. This practice still continues with traveling ships today.
Travel safely and enjoy your Thanksgiving with those you love.