Lost Passenger List Creates New Law
If it takes a storm to pass a law for future safe passage, so be it. But it’s sad that lives must be lost in the process. A countdown to lives lost in a disaster at sea is the major issue here. What was the count, 160 or 190 lives lost and who were they? There was no manifest of passengers and crew in port. The only record available, along with the log, went down with the ship. Therefore, history will never reveal this important statistic and the captain’s last words.
In 1890 the Portland, Maine, Steam Packet Company chartered the sidewheel passenger steamer SS Portland for its overnight service between Portland and Boston, Massachusetts, on which she made an eight-year run before disaster struck. At about 7 p.m. on November 26, 1898, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the well-built wooden sidewheeler left Boston with about 160 to 190 passengers and crew aboard. Although the Portland company later claimed to have warned Capt. Hollis H. Blanchard to postpone his departure until later because of a storm that appeared to be brewing. This should have signaled a delay. Many other ships tied up at New England ports were delayed and avoided what became the famous “Portland Gale of 1898,” one of the worst storms to hit that region in the history of maritime chronicles.
Two vessels reported seeing the Portland in Massachusetts Bay, a sign that it had left port that evening as scheduled. The captain failed to turn the ship around and it foundered in the wind and waves off Cape Ann (30 miles from Boston) and sank in 500 feet of water. The exact location has not been disclosed to keep souvenir hunters away. But at this depth there wouldn’t be many divers eyeing the sidewheeler which is best seen by ROVs (remote operated vehicles).In 2008, five Massachusetts scuba divers became the first to reach the steamship known as the “Titanic of New England.” These technical divers (“tech”) made three successful visits to the site. Tech divers go deep. They breathe special gases that allow them to go deeper (sport divers limit themselves to 130 feet) and remain on the site longer. These divers reported the wreck was strewn with artifacts such as dishes, wash basins, heads (toilets) and kitchen utensils, but no human remains. They didn’t touch anything knowing it was against a federal law to do so. They found the deck still there with one below it, but they didn’t consider it safe to go inside the ship which is made of wood that deteriorates and caves in easily. Due to the depth of the wreck, a couple of dive lights imploded, giving the divers only 10 to 15 minutes on the wreck. They did, however, take pictures which gives an idea of what the remains look like. Visibility is poor and only close-ups show what appears to be an object of some sort. Pictures show mostly drab marine life attached to the wreckage.
Scientists and researchers in ROVs explored the wreck in the 842-square-mile federally protected area named Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. It’s at the mouth of the Massachusetts Bay and Cape Ann, about 30 miles from Boston. This area is known for whale watching and is home to many other species of marine life, some of which visit the wreck.Dr. Calvin Mires, maritime archaeologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has covered six ROV expeditions to the site, one of which he led. He conducted archaeological analysis which included photographing the anchor, which is laying across the deck, the engine, a 30-foot wooden beam, part of the sidewheel and other artifacts. Dr. Mires and others will continue to visit the wreck, which like the Titanic, will continue to deteriorate.
For further information, contact: capecodmaritimemuseum.org then go to Discover. Or go to: Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary/NOAA.
Author: Ellsworth Boyd
Ellsworth Boyd, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, pursues an avocation of diving and writing. He has published articles and photo’s in every major dive magazine in the US., Canada, and half a dozen foreign countries. An authority on shipwrecks, Ellsworth has received thousands of letters and e-mails from divers throughout the world who responded to his Wreck Facts column in Sport Diver Magazine. When he’s not writing, or diving, Ellsworth appears as a featured speaker at maritime symposiums in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, New York and Philadelphia. “Romance & Mystery: Sunken Treasures of the Lost Galleons,” is one of his most popular talks. A pioneer in the sport, Ellsworth was inducted into the International Legends of Diving in 2013.