Wednesday, November 27, 2013

History reruns

November 27, 1898

Everyone's heard of the Titanic, Andrea Doria, and Lusitania. But most shipwrecks are long forgotten, except in the areas they occurred.

Long before The Perfect Storm was made famous by a George Clooney movie, there was the Portland Gale of 1898. The storm was catastrophic, but is mostly forgotten now.

In 48 hours of early-winter gale over 300 ships were either sunk or seriously damaged. Lives lost is unknown, but likely between 500-1000. Shore towns and cities from Massachusetts to Maine were devastated by rain, sleet, and more than 2 feet of snow, driven by winds measured up to 110 miles per hour. Communities of beach cottages simply vanished.

But the storm is still called by the name of it's most prominent victim: the steamship Portland.

In 1898 the Boston, Massachusetts to Portland, Maine route was a busy one, used heavily by both business and leisure travelers. Some took trains, while others preferred steamships. The latter traveled on coastal steamers, usually by night (the equivalent of a "red-eye" flight today). A ticket was $1 to $5, depending on your accomodations. You'd board in the evening, have dinner on the ship, sleep in your cabin, and the next morning were there. The ships went back and forth 3-4 times a week.

The New England weather can be notoriously vicious. A storm was coming in when the Portland sailed on the evening of November 26, 1898. Her captain, Hollis Blanchard, was known for being cautious, but apparently saw nothing in the conditions or forecast that unduly alarmed him. At 7:00 p.m. the ship sailed from India wharf in Boston, never to return.

The ship was sighted by others in the next few hours, but as the storm worsened, eventually vanished in the gale. When and exactly how she foundered will always be a secret, as she took all 192 passengers and crew with her. Recovered watches had all stopped between 9:00 and 10:00, though whether this was a.m. or p.m. is unknown.

The next day wreckage began washing ashore: furniture, timbers, luggage, lifebelts, and lots of bodies. Although the picture above shows a lifeboat being launched, none were ever found, and the severity of the storm makes it unlikely this was even attempted.

Several entire families were lost in the tragedy, traveling home after Thanksgiving in Boston. Their memorials are scattered across New England graveyards. The Portland black community was hit particularly hard, as (except for the officers) the majority of the crew were black men. In 1898 (33 years after the Civil War) service on these ships was considered a very respectable job for a black man, and those who served were generally veterans of the trade, supporting families ashore. They were often more sought after than white men for the same positions, as white men looking for these jobs were younger, less experienced, and seen as more likely to leave the job without notice.

The Portland herself would remain hidden for a long time. In 1989 the wreck was located, but the technology wouldn't allow an accurate identification. So it was forgotten again until 2002, when it was found by side-scan sonar. It's since been explored by divers, though at a depth of 460 feet in very cold water this is limited and dangerous.

If you're interested in learning more about the Portland and gale or 1898, I recommend the book "Four Short Blasts" (the title refers to the whistle distress signal of the time) by Peter Dow Bachelder. The book also has a brief history of the American Life-Saving Service, which eventually became today's U.S. Coast Guard.


Mama D said...

I love these posts. Keep 'em coming!! And since I haven't commented since you've been back (but do faithfully lurk every day) I hope things are doing better in Grumpyland.

jen said...

These stories are always fascinating - thanks!

RSDS said...

Dr. Grumpy, I have been thinking about your Maritime History accounts of shipwrecks all this last week.

Last Wednesday, our local weekly newspaper ran a story by Finn J.D. John about "Railroad mogul Henry Villard's sidewheel steamboat Alaskan, in late spring [May] of 1889"; when it sank in a storm on its way to dry dock in San Francisco.

rapnzl rn said...

We in the USA are gifted with an enormous plethora of fascinating maritime history. Thanks for enlightening us, Dr. G!

(Should retirement ever become an option, I am genetically programmed to spend any remaining mental capacity on research in this area.)

gin4407 said...

Happy Thankgiving and Happy Hanukah, Grumpy!

Old RPh said...

Quite a storm. Global warming?

Locations of visitors to this page