This Maine Steamship Went Down With All Hands During a Superstorm
Any Mainer worth his salt knows about the state's rich maritime history. Shipbuilding, fishing industry, cruise ship tourism, and many other factors have all played a role in Maine's fine sea faring reputation. However, it's not without its dark clouds.
One of those clouds occurred back near the turn of the 20th Century. The year was 1898, and Maine was about to have one of its worst disasters in its history. This incident involved a mighty steamship by the name of SS Portland.
Built in Bath, the steamship had a length close to 300 feet, and was able to carry up to 800 passengers. According to the NOAA, the Portland was owned by the Portland Steam Packet Company. The mighty ship ran an overnight route from Portland to Boston and had been successful and safe for its first nine years of service. That would all change one fateful night in November of 1898.
It would come to be known as the Portland Gale, a megastorm that hammered New England on November 27 and 28 of that year. According to the New England Historical Society, it started when two low pressure systems converged together over New England. Unfortunately, the forecast was predicted for just one of those systems to reach New England, so the region was completely unprepared for the massive surge.
The storm battered the coast and adjacent waters, catching hundreds of ships and people off guard. One of those ships was the SS Portland. The Historical Society writes that the mighty ship was heading back to Portland from Boston. Many passengers were going back home after visitng friends and family for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Reports claim the weather was fine when it left Boston Harbor on Saturday, November 26. However, things turned very quickly. The Portland was spotted a few times while traveling up the coast, but as the weather worsened, those sightings became few and far between.
According to the Historical Society, the Portland was likely lost Sunday morning off of the Cape Ann Pennisula. Some reports suggest it had rammed another vessel, while others simply say it was caught by a perfect storm. No matter the reason, the outcome was as grim as it could be – all hands were lost.
Sunday evening is when the first bodies were discovered. And according to the Historical society, there weren't many. Just 36 bodies were recovered out of the estimated 193 to 245 people on board. The Portland's sinking would be one of the worst maritime disasters of the 19th Century.
Sadly, the Portland wasn't only ship lost during the Portland Gale. According to the Historical Society, over 150 vessels would go down, with over 400 lives lost. It remains one of the deadliest storms in New England history.
The Portland shipwreck was found 100 years later in 1989. It is located at an undisclosed location in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The closest town is Gloucester. There are images of its watery tomb on the Stellwagen website. It's an eerie reminder of how unpredictable and cruel the weather can be, especially when on the water.
I highly suggest reading more about the Portland. It was an innovative ship for its time, and its untimely loss led to some considerable changes in ship development.
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