Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2011

Collecting Nautical Antiques

The Great Portland Gale of 1898

By Jim Claflin


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November 26 in the year 1898 dawned quietly, with high clouded skies and only a light wind. Aboard the 291-foot steamer Portland boarding passengers at India Wharf in Boston, the crew and passengers looked forward to a good voyage and their return home after a long Thanksgiving holiday.

The Portland was the pride of the New England coastal steamer fleet. She was a sturdy vessel, a wooden-hulled paddle wheel steamship built just ten years earlier in 1889 by the New England Shipbuilding Company of Bath, Maine. The steamer was one of New England’s largest and most luxurious side paddle wheel steamships, outfitted with the finest furnishings and accommodating up to 800 passengers. She was run by an excellent crew and for nearly 10 years the Portland connected Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine for the Portland Steam Packet Company (later renamed the Portland Steamship Company). She had carried thousands of passengers and tons of cargo along the New England coast and earned the reputation as a safe and dependable steamer. However, like the other big side-wheel steamers popular in the late 1800s, her long, shallow wooden hull and massive overhanging sponsons (housing her paddlewheels) made her vulnerable to rough seas.

By evening the winds had begun to strengthen. Within hours it would grow to hurricane proportions, wreaking havoc all along the coast.

Throughout the afternoon, the Portland’s captain, Hollis H. Blanchard, spoke by phone with Captain Alexander Dennison of the Portland’s sister ship Bay State, still moored at Portland, Maine. They discussed the now strengthening storm and the possibilities for completing their voyages. Soon Captain Blanchard determined that since he would be heading north, he could safely run ahead of the tempest, while Captain Dennison decided to reassess the situation for heading south toward Boston at midnight.

By seven o’clock it had begun snowing lightly as the Portland left India Wharf and threaded her way through Boston Harbor’s many islands. She passed the Bangor boat Kennebec anchored in President Roads, having aborted her evening trip due to the threatening storm. Other vessels reported seeing the Portland as she left the cluttered harbor, past Graves Ledge lighthouse, and turned north toward Thacher’s Island Twin Lights.

At 9:30 pm, Captain Lynes B. Hathaway, master workman for the Lighthouse Service, was working on Thacher’s Island when he saw the Portland pass between the island and Londoner Ledge to the southeast. By now her progress was clearly hampered by the deteriorating weather. Although she was still making headway against the storm at this sighting, she probably did not get much farther before her progress was stopped.

By midnight the winds swung around to the north. Shipping all along the coast had begun to seek shelter as the winds raged all through the night of the 26th. Between 11 and 11:45 p.m., the Portland was sighted three times, but now she was to the southeast of Thacher’s Island–she was being driven south against her will by the storm.

Conditions on the steamer must have been dreadful. Passengers and crew alike must have, by now, feared the worst. Unable to make progress northward against the storm and unable to make for safe port, Portland’s only hope lay in working her way offshore and riding out the storm at sea.

At 5:45 a.m. on the 27th, Keeper Samuel O. Fisher of the Race Point Life Saving Station in Provincetown, heard four sharp blasts from a steamer’s whistle, believed to be the Portland. As he walked the beach, he searched in vain for the source of the sound. Sea conditions were the “worst that he had ever seen.”

By the evening of the 27th as the gale continued, surfmen patrolling the outer beach of Cape Cod, began to find wreckage washing ashore. Surfman Johnson of the Peaked Hill Bars Life Saving Station fought his way through the gale to reach the waterline, to find a life-belt lettered with the words “Steamer Portland of Portland.” By high tide at just before midnight, a flood of wreckage and bodies began to wash ashore.

Winds raged throughout the 27th and did not subside until the 28th, some 36 hours after the storm had started. Winds were clocked at up to 72 mph in Boston, and were probably even stronger along the coast southeast of Boston, especially on Cape Cod.

By the morning of the 28th, Massachusetts residents awoke to find the coastline littered with the wrecks and wreckage of dozens of vessels, large and small, smashed or sunk by the fierce winds and seas. Wreckage from the Portland began to wash up on Cape Cod from Provincetown to Eastham. Windows, doors chairs, paneling and more flooded ashore over the ensuing days and weeks. Life Saving Service personnel on Cape Cod recovered 34 bodies over the next week as well as hundreds of personal belongings. Many of the bodies wore wristwatches that had stopped at 9:15. All those aboard Portland, believed to be a total of 191 passengers and crew (the only passenger list was lost with the ship), were killed.

The gale would become known as the Portland Gale, responsible for killing over 200 persons throughout New England and wrecking at least 140 major vessels.

Houses were blown over and washed away all along the coast from Cape Cod to Portland, Maine. In Provincetown harbor alone over 30 vessels were blown ashore or sunk. In Scituate, 30 miles south of Boston, the coastline was permanently altered when mountainous waves cut a new inlet from the sea to the North River, closed the old river mouth, and reversed the flow of part of the river.

Had Captain Blanchard been foolhardy to take his vessel out into the teeth of the storm? Using the weather information at his disposal at the time, the run north ahead of the storm in this modern steam-powered vessel, was expected to be difficult but not unusual for the times. Other captains interviewed after the storm admitted that under similar conditions, they would have acted as Captain Blanchard did.

For years, controversy reigned as to the location of the final remains of the ill-fated ship but in the summer of 2002, wreckage of the Portland was discovered unusually intact on Stellwagen Bank, 25 miles east of Boston, at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay.

Sparking my recently renewed interest in this famous maritime disaster was my discovery and acquisition in December of a superb, large, framed albumen photograph of the Steamship Portland taken in the1890’s. The large format albumen photo presents a broadside view of the side-wheeler underway with passengers and crew on deck, complete in its original pressed golden oak frame, with captioned mount, and original rippled glass. The entire piece measures 33” x 43” and probably originated in the offices of the Portland Steam Packet Company.

For more information on this and other New England shipwrecks, Edward Rowe Snow’s early work GREAT STORMS AND FAMOUS SHIPWRECKS OF THE NEW ENGLAND COAST (Boston. April 1946. 3rd ed. 376pp.) makes wonderful reading.

To see many of the artifacts that washed ashore from the Portland that week, the exhibit at Highland House Museum, run by the Truro Historical Society on outer Cape Cod, is well worth the trip.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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