Scientists find the 'Titanic of New England'

Discovery of the steamship Portland, which sank in 1898, ends 100-year search.

On Nov. 26, 1898, a light snow began to fall as a 291-foot coastal steamer christened the "Portland" eased out from Boston's India Wharf en route to Maine.

She never arrived. Sometime during the next 18 hours, the richly furnished side-wheeler with its 191 passengers and crew foundered in the teeth of the 19th century's "perfect storm." The pride of the Portland Steamship Company sank, killing all in what became known as the Portland Gale.

Now a team of marine scientists says it has definitely found the fabled wreck in 500 feet of water off the coast of Boston, ending a century-long search for the so-called "Titanic of New England."

The announcement Thursday that researchers have identified and surveyed the Portland in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 25 miles east of Boston, provides the first unambiguous identification of the ship's location. It could be the first of several expeditions aimed at solving some of the mysteries surrounding one of the worst disasters in US maritime history.

Images taken remotely show the Portland sitting upright and intact on the bottom, bits of spokes still radiating from the hubs of its side-mounted paddles. The steamer's twin smokestacks, a 40-foot A-frame that supported the "transmission" linking the ship's steam engine to the paddles, and the lack of a propeller on the stern told the team it had the right ship, according to Bruce Terrell, marine archaeologist for the federal sanctuary program.

The most striking thing about the wreck, he says, is the disappearance of the steamer's superstructure. "All of the structure above the main deck is swept clean," he says. "We're not finding any debris on the bottom around it.... You can't see that without feeling the power of the ocean and sympathy for the poor people on board during those awful last hours."

Scouring the sea floor

The effort comes at a time of heightened federal activity in identifying and preserving offshore cultural resources. Earlier this month, for example, a salvage team from the US Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pulled up the gun turret from the Civil War warship the USS Monitor. It is hoping to preserve what pieces they can of the rapidly deteriorating vessel.

The Portland's final resting place was discovered initially in 1989 by John Fish and Arnold Carr of American Underwater Search and Survey, Mr. Terrell notes. But the evidence needed to identify the vessel was inconclusive. Then a few years ago, the US Geological Survey conducted detailed sonar surveys of the Rhode Island-sized sanctuary. Improvements in sonar technology "rendered the ocean transparent," says Craig McDonald, the reserve's superintendent, allowing researchers to spot features as small as a refrigerator on the sea floor.

Initially, the mapping effort was designed to give federal overseers a better idea of the geological and ecological features within the reserve. But the maps also showed unexpected features that geology couldn't explain, including a prominent one at the location Messrs. Fish and Carr identified.

On Monday, a team from NOAA and the University of Connecticut headed back to the area for a detailed look and found the wreck on their first pass. The find is expected to yield insights into ship technology at the time, Terrell says, noting that the Portland was the most advanced coastal passenger steamer of its day.

But the disaster also marked a turning point in the way steamship companies did business. Following the Portland's loss, companies stopped using shallow-hulled side-wheelers, switching instead to deeper-draft, propeller-driven ships that were more stable in rough seas.

Companies also made sure they kept copies of passenger lists on shore. The Portland carried the only copy of its final passenger list to the bottom, making it difficult to identify – or even tally – those lost.

By all accounts, sunny skies greeted early risers the morning the Portland began loading passengers, who were returning home from Thanksgiving celebrations as far away as New York City. By midday, however, clouds were lowering as a storm moved up from the Gulf of Mexico. Another storm was heading east from the Great Lakes. The two systems merged to form a nor'easter unlike any seen in a century.

Forecasters issued gale warnings, but efforts by the shipping company to contact Capt. Hollis Blanchard failed. By one account, Blanchard spoke to the captain of a sister ship, who had been instructed to remain in port until 9 p.m. The captain suggested the same thing to Blanchard. But the ever-punctual captain steamed away from the wharf at 7 p.m., his scheduled departure time, for the overnight run to Portland.

That fateful night

One sea captain at the tip of Cape Cod recalled hearing four blasts from a ship's whistle at 7 a.m. the next day, signifying it was in trouble. The last vessel to spot the Portland was the schooner Ruth M. Martin at 9 a.m. The watches found on victims who washed ashore had virtually all stopped at 9:15.

At its height, the storm generated 40-foot waves, 100-m.p.h. wind gusts, and destroyed or beached at least 140 major vessels along the Northeast coast. More than 400 people lost their lives. The storm also snapped the undersea cable between Boston and Cape Cod, so information about the disaster had to come by transAtlantic cables to and from France.

The large number of casualties, the destruction of a state-of-the-art vessel, and the chain of miscommunication ahave cemented the disaster's place in maritime lore. "The wreck of the Portland has never lost its mystique," says Mr. McDonald. "It's New England's Titanic."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Scientists find the 'Titanic of New England'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today