Friday, November 27, 2009

November 27, 1898

111 years ago today...

Off the medical and humorous topics, I'm going to indulge my interest in maritime history this morning.

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 summer beach cottages just 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 steamship. 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 actually 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.

So that's a history lesson for Friday. It seemed like a change of pace, and I needed to write a post, and I hope you enjoyed it. If you're interested in learning more about the Portland and 1898 gale, 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 the U.S. Coast Guard.


ToBlog today said...

Very interesting post!

My son just submitted to his grade 7 class a news report on the "A.J. Goddard" which also went down in a storm a century ago. It was recently discovered in the depths of the Yukon's legendary lake Laberge.

The only book I've read about the sea was one written by my friend Derek Lundy. Godforesaken Sea is about a yacht race that went terribly wrong.

Indeed, the sea is a formidable force and I for one stay safely out of it.

"Bella" said...

thanks for that interesting history lesson, Dr. Grumpy! Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Angelina- is that the same Lake Lebarge where the poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee" was set?

Trish said...

Thanks for that memorial/history. I had never heard of that storm and I'm glad to know that all those who lost their lives are not forgotten.

I love the way you write - I hope you consider early retirement to become a writer.

Jen said...

thanks for the story! I enjoyed learning about that.

Anonymous said...

I saw a program on that particular ship and storm on some channel not all that long ago...maybe it was the Weather Channel or the History Channel...Very interesting story.

Celeste said...

Very interesting. I grew up on the shore of Lake Michigan and sometimes like to read shipwreck tales about the Great Lakes. We went to Mackinac Island this summer and this time visited their lighthouse museum. It was an excellent trip back in time.

Anonymous said...

Well, this explains the post on the Edmund Fitzgerald. It seemed pretty random at the time... (as in, not related to the usual material).

Francis said...

Thanks a lot for psting this Dr G.. I've never heard this account before, it's amazing how much of our history is lost or not remembered as it should be. You gave this story some much needed exposure to the masses.

The Mother said...

Love the history.

Anonymous said...

Reads like the beginning of a Clive Cussler novel.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Anon- I am a fan of his stuff, but I don't think he's done any stories about the Portland.

Oddly, I once had a personal communication from Cussler by email, roughly 10 years ago, when I wrote to his NUMA site asking if he'd ever looked for the Portland. I was impressed he wrote me himself.

Beadgirl said...

My mother wrote a book about this storm titled "Lost With All Hands". She was working on having it made into a movie when Clooneys movie came out.

Beadgirl said...

My mother wrote a book titled "Lost With All Hands" regarding the Portland Gale. She was working on making it a movie when A Perfect Storm came out.

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