Ship of doom
On Cape Cod, we were not alone
By JOHN RICHARDSON
1998 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Emily Cobb crossed Boston's India Wharf and stepped aboard
the Portland-bound steamship, perhaps too excited about her upcoming
singing debut in a Portland church to think much of the storm
clouds covering the moon and stars.
This is a lithograph of the SS Portland, which
sank in 1898 in a monstrous blizzard, killing nearly 200 people.
Lithograph courtesy Kenneth Thompson
Bowdoin College student George Kenniston walked across the
gangplank, anxious to see his brother in Yarmouth after a Thanksgiving
with his sister.
Jes and Jessine Schmidt, with 5-year-old Jorgen and 4-year-old
Anton, filed onto the ship for the last leg of a long journey
home from Europe.
Second Steward Francis Eben Heuston, a mustachioed seaman
with a home and family on Portland's Munjoy Hill, was among the
crew welcoming them aboard and preparing for the likelihood of
a rough voyage.
It was about 7 p.m. on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Passengers
settled into their cabins or the couches of the plush red-carpeted
saloon. Crewmen shoveled coal into the roaring boilers. The ship's
whistle blew into the cold air. Snowflakes fell onto the steamer's
Capt. Hollis Blanchard steered out of the harbor past a succession
of boats heading back to port for shelter from the approaching
It was a century ago on Nov. 26, 1898 that the
ship departed for Portland, only to run into a monstrous blizzard
that pounded and battered the steamship into history. The sinking
of the Portland and the loss of the nearly 200 people on board
is still considered New England's worst maritime disaster and
remains the source of nagging mysteries. Why did Blanchard leave
port? And when and where did the pummeling winds and towering
waves finally send the Portland to the still ocean floor?
The storm buried much of New England in a crippling avalanche
of snow, washed away coastal buildings and destroyed neighborhoods,
sank or grounded hundreds of boats and ships and killed more
than 400 people. Yet, because of the devastation caused by the
loss of one ship, it is still known simply as the Portland Gale.
A century later, the legacy of the Portland is still passed
along in artifacts and family stories of ancestors who perished
with the steamer and those onshore who endured painful days of
waiting for the ship that would never arrive.
One of those Portland descendants, Sarah Fuller of Great
Chebeague Island, is trying to solve a personal mystery created
by the shipwreck.
Sarah Fuller, who's great- grandfather died
on the SS Portland, holds family portraits including her grandmother
and great-grandmother. Photo by Doug Jones
Fuller's grandmother was put up for adoption and separated
from her brothers after their father, Watchman John C. Whitten,
perished with the steamer. Now, armed only with a few old photos
and letters, Fuller hopes to find John Whitten's other descendants
and reunite a family broken apart by the disaster a century ago.
"We're still trying to find our long-lost relatives,"
The story of that tragic Thanksgiving weekend opens a window
into a bygone way of life in New England, before cars, before
radios and distress calls, before major transportation disasters
broadcast instantaneously around the globe.
"It is quite significant historically. It was one of
the last of the great luxury coastal steamliners," said
Warren Riess, an historian at the University of Maine's Darling
Marine Center. "When we get into the 20th century, our whole
life system changes. It's almost a symbolic end to an era, and
I think people subconsciously think of it that way."
Although 100 years have passed, the last hours of the Portland
are still the subject of controversy. This account is drawn from
newspaper clippings, historians, descendants of those on board
and several published accounts, including a new book, "Four
Short Blasts: The Gale of 1898 and the Loss of the Steamer Portland."
The 281-foot-long Portland was one of the large coastal steamers
that Portland Steam Packet Co. built to compete with the railroad.
Steamships, which also carried freight, were still the traditional
and most elegant way to travel the Maine coast or go south to
Boston and New York.
"The main saloon is lighted with a dome skylight,"
the Portland Evening Express wrote of the Portland. "It
is finished in the Corinthian style of architecture and furnished
with richly carved mahogany furniture with wine-colored plush
upholstery. The floors are covered with velvet carpets."
The Portland and another steamer named the Bay State ran back
and forth between Portland and Boston, departing from both ports
every evening at 7 p.m. The 100-mile voyage took 8 or 9 hours.
It cost $1 per person.
It was one of the last sidewheel steamers. Instead of the
old-fashioned single paddle wheel in back, or the newer propellers,
it had a paddle wheel on each side of the ship powered by coal-fired
Sidewheelers were designed for flat coastal bays, not stormy
Atlantic seas, and they frequently stayed in port during gales.
The steamship line had the reputation for being cautious. So
did Blanchard. Recently promoted to captain, Blanchard was in
his mid-50s and lived in Deering with his wife, son and daughter.
Blanchard and his superiors knew a snowstorm and gale-force
winds were approaching that Saturday. No one was prepared, however,
for the intensity or duration of the gale.
One storm was moving up the East Coast, and another was swinging
east from the Great Lakes. It was the combination of those over
the coast of New England that created the worst regional storm
in memory. It lasted more than 30 hours, dropped as much as 2
feet of snow inland and packed coastal wind gusts of 100 mph.
Boston Harbor was still calm and snow just starting to fall
as Blanchard stood in the white wheelhouse perched over the Portland's
bow, passing other vessels returning to port. One was the Steamer
Kennebec, which had left Boston for Gardiner but turned around
because of the weather.
Nearly three hours later, the Portland was seen steaming steadily
toward Portland off Thacher's Island, about 30 miles northeast
of Boston. It wouldn't have been long after, however, that the
blinding snow and growing waves caught up to the steamer.
Several ship captains, in their own battles to stay afloat
late Saturday, reported seeing the Portland pitching in the seas.
The ship likely got no farther than Cape Ann in Massachusetts
before getting driven off-course or turning east to avoid the
rocky coastline. At 11 p.m., now well off-course and offshore,
the Portland almost collided with the fishing schooner Grayling,
one of the vessels to survive the storm at sea.
As Blanchard fought to keep the bow pointed into the mountainous
waves and powerful wind, the crew and passengers endured a harrowing,
sickening night praying that the ship and its exposed sidewheels
would hold together. The ship's lights probably failed, and windows
were likely pounded out by the sea. It would not have been possible
to launch life rafts and the captain could no longer turn around
without getting capsized by the waves. The ship had no wireless
like the one that would go to sea on the Titanic more than 13
At 5:45 a.m. Sunday, in near-hurricane force winds, lighthouse
keeper Samuel O. Fisher trudged along the beach at the northern
tip of Cape Cod and, over the crashing surf, heard four short
blasts of a steamer's whistle a distress call. The lifesavers
got a "horse harnessed and beach apparatus ready for a jump,"
he wrote, but saw no ship and no wreckage.
By then, snow was falling in Portland and the steamer was
overdue at Franklin Wharf, where the Maine State Pier is now.
No one knew if it left Boston, however, or if it took shelter
in a harbor along the way.
At the northern tip of Cape Cod on Sunday evening, lifesaver
John Johnston was scouring the edge of the surf when he found
several empty 40-quart cans from Turner Center Creamery in Maine
and a cork-filled life jacket with the words "Str. Portland."
Battered pieces of wreckage followed. Overnight, bodies started
to wash ashore 21 in the first few days, a total of 40
Meanwhile, families gathered in Portland and Boston for news
of the ship. But even as bodies were washing onto the beaches
of Cape Cod, they were told not to worry.
The blizzard had destroyed telegraph and telephone lines from
Cape Cod, and it buried or washed out railroad tracks. The ocean
was still too rough to send a boat to Boston with the news.
On Monday afternoon, a Boston Herald reporter on Cape Cod
named Charles F. Ward heard about the bodies. Although he realized
the Portland had perished, Ward could not make contact with Boston.
He took a train as far it could go, then trudged through the
snow, hired a horse and rode nine miles to another train station,
and finally got to Boston by midmorning on Tuesday to break the
"STEAMER PORTLAND SURELY LOST . . . Gloom cast over Portland,"
read the Express headlines.
Even after the news spread, it was unknown how many people,
and whose husband or whose daughter, were among the dead. The
only passenger list was aboard the ship, a practice that would
Hans Schmidt waited in Portland, one of those holding out
hope that family members had not boarded the ship. His brother
Jes Jessen Schmidt was returning from a trip to Denmark with
his wife and two young sons.
"It must have been really difficult," said Mason
Smith, grandson of Hans Schmidt and the co-author of "Four
Short Blasts." "That was the time they expected them
to be coming back."
He waited for more than a week before receiving a brief, fateful
letter that has been passed down to younger generations.
Jes Schmidt and his family had reached Boston the morning
of Nov. 26, and mentioned to an immigration official there that
they planned to board another ship that evening for the final
voyage home to see his brother in Morrill's Corner. The official
recounted the conversation in the letter: "I write to inquire
if the Schmidt family reached you, for if they did not the probability
is that they went down with the Portland."
Countless families throughout Portland and beyond were devastated.
"These are known people. Everybody had connections in the
community," said Smith.
Former Maine Sen. E. Dudley Freeman left a grieving wife and
young children. Charles H. Thompson, who ran the Thompson grocery
store in the Woodfords section of Portland, was on board with
his wife Susan and 3-year-old daughter Gladys. Oren Hooper, who
had a furniture store in downtown Portland, perished with his
13-year-old son. There were several local school teachers, including
33-year-old Sophie B. Holmes. George Kenniston was a 20-year-old
student at Bowdoin and the youngest member of a prominent Boothbay
Portland's cohesive African-American community was especially
hard hit. Like Eben Heuston, the 41-year-old second steward,
many of the 65 crew members were African-American men from Portland.
Many had families on shore and some were leaders in their churches.
Heuston had recently married a seaman's widow named Margaret
Ann, who had a daughter named Alice Ball. With his steward's
pay, Heuston bought a home on Munjoy Hill for his new family.
"They had been married exactly one year and one day when
the ship went down," said Robert Greene, Alice Ball's grandson.
Margaret Ann, who had lost two husbands in five years, never
Greene grew up in the same Munjoy Hill home with stories about
Heuston and the Portland. "I always thought it was sunk
with a load of gold," he said.
The scope of the disaster quickly settled over Portland. On
Sunday, Dec. 5, churches throughout the city held emotional services
and paid tribute to the members missing from their pews.
At the First Parish Church, the Rev. Perkins read a tribute
to Emily Cobb, the talented young soprano who was due to sing
with the choir that same morning.
At the Abyssinian Church, where the African-American congregation
had lost two trustees and 17 other members, the Rev. Theobold
A. Smith's words "brought out those nearer to them into
tears and (all) but few at times could be seen with dry eyes,"
according to the Daily Eastern Argus.
Herbert Adams, a Portland writer and historian, believes the
Abyssinian Church itself was a victim of the Portland. "The
blow was so heavy that it quite literally wiped out the active
supporters . . . and within 12 years the congregation was down
to about seven active members."
The total death toll is most often reported as between 160
and 200 people. The authors of "Four Short Blasts"
went back through historical accounts and published a list of
Along with the loss of life, survivors agonized over questions
that remain mysteries today.
It will never be known why Blanchard left India Wharf that
Saturday and didn't turn around when the mistake was clear.
Officials of the Portland-based steamship company insisted
later that they had telephoned a message for Blanchard to wait
in port. Blanchard would not likely have ignored such an order,
however. He may never have received the message. Some insisted,
despite the company's statements, that he was ordered to sail.
Blanchard did check weather forecasts, but may have been confident
he would be well ahead of the storm.
A court later declared the loss an act of God.
It's clear the ship sank on Sunday, Nov. 27, either at around
9 a.m. or 9 p.m., because watches recovered with the bodies stopped
between 9 and 10 o'clock. It's unknown, however, whether the
ship capsized, broke apart, collided with one of the other lost
ships, or exploded.
While fishing vessels occasionally dragged up pieces of wreckage,
such as the anchor, efforts to locate the wreck in the months
and years that followed were unsuccessful.
In 1989, two well-known researchers based in Massachusetts
said they found the wreck resting at the bottom of 300 to 400
feet of water about 20 miles north of Cape Cod inside the Stellwagen
Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The location is now considered
the most likely resting place of the ship and most of its passengers,
but the researchers have not yet recovered or photographed anything
that would provide final proof.
The ultimate fate of the ship and its passengers is not the
Portland mystery that most puzzles Sarah Fuller.
The Chebeague Island resident is one of the descendants carrying
the legacy of the Portland. But she is carrying more than most.
Her great-grandfather, John C. Whitten, was a watchman on
board the ship who had a wife, three sons and a daughter on shore.
According to the family story passed along to her, Whitten's
death left his wife, Letitia Whitten, so impoverished she put
her 6-year-old daughter Fuller's grandmother up
The girl, Leddy Audrey Whitten, was raised by a prominent
Portland family and called Audrey Whitten Thompson.
About 15 years ago, Fuller inherited a tin box where her grandmother
had kept newspaper clippings about the Portland and well-preserved
photos of her mother and two brothers, Edward and Percy. The
contents brought the old family story to life. "I was really
shocked," Fuller said.
She later found her great-grandmother's grave in Rockland
beneath a stone that reads: "Lettie A. widow of John C.
Fuller has since called Whittens in the phone book and even
attended Whitten funerals in search of the long-lost relatives.
"It's direct family and it's here. It's got to be."
Now, Fuller hopes a mutual interest in the 100th anniversary
of New England's worst sea disaster may help bring them back
together, and at the same time solve at least one of the mysteries
left behind by the steamship Portland.
The Maine Historical Society Library at 485 Congress St. has
a small exhibit about the Portland and will host a lecture at
noon Monday by the authors of a new book, "Four Short Blasts:
The Gale of 1898 and the Loss of the Steamer Portland."
Co-authors Mason Smith and Peter Bachelder compiled various accounts
of the storm and theories of the Portland's demise, uncovered
new stories about the victims and published a new list of 192
passengers and crew members believed to have perished.
Maine authors Peter Dow Bachelder and Mason Philip Smith gathered
the available information about the steamer Portland in a book,
"Four Short Blasts." Read the review at Maine
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