Sunday, November 22, 1998

Ship of doom

On Cape Cod, we were not alone

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Staff Writer

Copyright © 1998 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


news photo

This is a lithograph of the SS Portland, which sank in 1898 in a monstrous blizzard, killing nearly 200 people. Lithograph courtesy Kenneth Thompson

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.

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 wooden decks.

Capt. Hollis Blanchard steered out of the harbor past a succession of boats heading back to port for shelter from the approaching storm .

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.

news photo

Sarah Fuller, who's great- grandfather died on the SS Portland, holds family portraits including her grandmother and great-grandmother. Photo by Doug Jones

One of those Portland descendants, Sarah Fuller of Great Chebeague Island, is trying to solve a personal mystery created by the shipwreck.

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," she said.

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 steam boilers.

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 years later.

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 within weeks.

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 news.

"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 quickly change.

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 family.

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 married again.

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 192 victims.

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 for adoption.

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. Whitten."

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.


Related links

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 Books Online.

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Copyright © 1998 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.