Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2012

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Steamship Portland

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. But, by the evening of the 27th, surfmen patrolling the outer beach of Cape Cod would begin to find wreckage washing ashore including a life-belt lettered with the words “Steamer Portland of Portland.”

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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).

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By seven o’clock on November 26th, it had begun snowing lightly as the Portland left Boston’s 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 – into the teeth of the storm.

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Winds raged through 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. Soon 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 192 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 in New England and wrecking at least 140 major vessels.

This month we acquired at auction, from a Maine collector, a historically significant collection of articles pertaining to this ill fated steamer. We are always looking for items relating to this important and well known vessel. Included in the lot is what is believed to be the only known photograph of the Portland’s Captain - Hollis H. Blanchard, who lived in Westbrook, Maine with his family.

Captain Blanchard was the father of three children; two sons and a nineteen year old daughter. Blanchard’s father, grandfather, uncles, and brothers were all ship captains. As a young man Blanchard learned his trade in the merchant marine as a steamboat man in the mid 1880s. Blanchard had captained the Schooner Mary A. Coombs, Brigantine R.S. Hassel, Steamship William Tibbetts, and a number of coasters and vessels in the West Indies trade. Upon returning to Maine, Blanchard served as the pilot, also known as a navigator, on both the Portland and her sister ship Bay State. Blanchard was in his mid-fifties at the time of the Portland Gale and although he had been in the employment of the Portland Steam Packet Company for twelve years he had only recently been promoted to the position of Captain, having served as a pilot for most of his career with the company. He was promoted to Captain following the death of the Portland’s previous skipper, Captain William Snowman.

Had Captain Blanchard been foolhardy to take his vessel out into the teeth of the storm? Controversy still surrounds the decisions made that night.

Another item included in this lot is a wonderful cased model of the Portland by the noted nautical model maker George Sine, once of Charlestown, Mass. The model was built in the 1950s, having taken three years to complete. Mr. Sine was a member of the Boston Ship Model Club and built a number of models for museums around the northeast. This model of the Portland was on exhibit at the M.I.T. Marine Museum in Cambridge from 1960-1962. The model is superb in detail and measures a full 16” long.

In addition are seven original newspapers from both Portland and Boston during the anxious days following the storm. On the 29th, the Portland newspaper reported “No News of the Portland . . . More Anxious Hours and Still no Word of Missing Steamer.” But closer to the tragedy, in Boston, newspapers were already reporting “ALL LOST! Steamer Portland Wrecked off Truro, Mass. Thirty-four bodies found….” By December 2nd, papers were reporting of the “Anxious Search for Remains – Sorrowful Journeys of Portland People to Cape Cod.”

Other items in the lot include photos of the Portland, many books and magazines on the subject, research materials, engraved illustrations and more. This is a significant collection that will add to our knowledge of the dreadful loss and provide reading and research material for some time.

This is yet another wonderful example of what can be found at your local auctions and sales – so keep looking.

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, Massachusetts is well worth the trip.

Another worthwhile book on this and other shipwrecks is AFTER THE STORM – True Stories of Disaster and Recovery at Sea by John Rousmaniere (author of Fastnet, Force 10). (McGraw Hill. 2002. 338p.).

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects?

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

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 Jul/Aug 2012 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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