Bohemian Wreck Mural at South Portland Post Office in Maine
The Bohemian Shipwreck
Near Cape Elizabeth Twin Lights and Portland Head Light
On February 4,1864, the steamer Bohemian, was making a winter voyage leaving Liverpool, England, for Portland, Maine. The 295-foot steamer was carrying about 219 passengers consisting of 200 Irish immigrants and 19 cabin class passengers. As was the custom in those days, immigrants would be crowded below deck at the bottom of the ship in steerage away from the other passengers. Captain Borland had his 98 crewmen aboard the vessel and was very familiar with the Portland Harbor, as he had made the journey a number of times during his eight years at the helm.
On February 22, 1864, on President’s day, the Bohemian proceeded up the Maine coast towards Cape Elizabeth, moving rather slowly as a hazy sky filled the night. Sometime after 7 o’clock the lookout notified the captain that he spotted two lights offshore. The two lights were the range lights of the Cape Elizabeth Twin Lights a few miles south of Portland Head Light. Somehow from the atmospheric haze Borland had miscalculated the distance and believed he was seven or eight miles offshore, but in reality, the Bohemian was only a couple of miles away from the rocky shoreline, and was proceeding dangerously close to Alden’s Rock. This was a treacherous ledge in shallow water that at the time was only marked by a silent buoy, not a bell buoy. Borland could not see Portland Head Lighthouse from his position.
By 8 o’clock, the first officer had just taken the wheel when a buoy marking the perilous rock was spotted directly ahead. The captain yelled to have the engines shut off in an attempt to slow the vessel, but it was too late. The Bohemian struck Alden’s Rock, ripping a gash in the hull. Borland tried to head the vessel toward shore, eventually reaching an inlet location about two miles from the mainland, but the disabled steamer could not proceed any further under power due to the amount of water she had taken in, and the damage inside the engine room. The steamer could only drift towards shore. The captain ordered the gunboats fired to signal the Bohemian’s distress, but only one could be set off as the other was already under water. A pilot boat’s captain was in the vicinity a mile away and heard the one gun, but believed the ship was celebrating President’s day.
To keep the Bohemian from drifting back out to sea, anchors were dropped and the captain ordered the lifeboats deployed immediately. While most lifeboats were able to safely launch, a support pin in the second lifeboat gave way, spilling 40 passengers into the freezing waters and drowning 16 of them. As the lifeboat drifted ashore near Cape Elizabeth hours later, locals found only one man and child in it, both dead.
Most of the boats launched in the hysteria were not filled to capacity and contained mostly men. The frightened passengers and crew aboard the lifeboats refused to return to the sinking ship to pick up those stranded on the deck for fear of capsizing. Some of those stranded on the wreck jumped into the icy waters in hopes of being hauled into the boats, but many drowned from exposure in their struggles.
With the lifeboats dispatched, Captain Borland, four of his crew, and around seventy passengers found themselves stranded on deck. With the steamer’s’ bridge completely covered in water, and the seas constantly sweeping over her, Captain Borland knew the Bohemian’s time afloat was getting shorter. The steamer was less than 1000 feet from shore when some of the lifeboats returned to pick up survivors. Additional help was provided from residents at the Ocean House and from the Fishing House on Cape Elizabeth, who sent teams out to help the survivors, and to later help in the gruesome task of picking up the corpses floating in the waters and bringing them to shore.
Some of those stranded, many of whom were women and children, who were still waiting and could not climb up the masts and rigging, were being washed overboard as the ship started to sink into the icy waters. Captain Borland managed to get about fifty passengers off the wreck to safety along with his crew. He and his remaining crew waited until all the remaining survivors were in the lifeboats before they climbed into the last lifeboat to shore. An hour and a half later, the Bohemian sank. In total, two crewmembers and a total of forty passengers, all Irish immigrants from the lower steerage class, perished. The nineteen cabin passengers survived.
The locals of Cape Elizabeth opened their homes in providing food, shelter, and clothing to the exhausted survivors, while the local City Hall provided temporary shelter as the survivors tried to notify their families in England and Ireland. Money was collected by the Portland Board of Trade and distributed to the survivors for clothing.
In his deposition, Captain Borland testified “when we struck I was not certain where we were.” The ship’s officers, crew and some of the passengers were asked for their recollections of the night, and were questioned as to whether the captain had been drinking. Some reported that they felt the captain was a bit intoxicated, but the chief saloon steward testified that Borland was given one glass of ale that day. There was also public outcry that the captain’s crew had left so many stranded to die on the ship, while he and most of his crew survived. The jury concluded that Captain Borland was in error of judgment and was responsible for the disaster, and that his crew did not act professionally in trying to help the passengers to fill the lifeboats to capacity, thinking only of themselves. The pilot nearby who had heard the gun signaling the Bohemian in distress was also ruled at fault for not investigating. They also ruled that Alden’s Rock should have had a bell buoy instead of a silent buoy to warn vessels passing by the treacherous rock.
Days later, some of the women from nearby Cape Elizabeth found items from the Bohemian wreck including bolts of wool, silks and satins which many used to create new clothing for the harsh winter.
After the shipwreck of the Bohemian and public outcry, The Portland Board of Trade investigated the rocks and shoals nearby and had bell buoy markers placed as needed. Portland Head Lighthouse’s visibility was also examined and improved by raising the tower 20 feet in 1865. A second-order Fresnel lens was also installed to generate a more powerful light.
For the lighthouse historians, inside the lobby of the South Portland Post Office is a mural painting of the wreck of the R.M.S. Bohemian (top image). As one of Maine’s worst disasters, it is worth observing, and realizing the area is much safer for travel these days. At least 12 of the 42 lives that were lost are also remembered in a small monument in nearby Calvary Cemetery in South Portland.
Cape Elizabeth is a rocky scenic area where visitors can view both Cape Elizabeth range lights (one in the photo is the active front range light) in a nearby residential area off Route 77 at the end of Two Lights Road near Twin Lights Park. There is also a snack shack next to a nearby small beach. For those who want to explore, visitors will find Two Lights State Park just before visiting the lighthouses. Be wary both lighthouses are private residences, but tourists are allowed to take photographs from the street.
Enjoy and be thankful,
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