The sea gives up one of its ghosts
Legendary steamship Portland located in marine sanctuary off Massachusetts
BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- The frozen watches that came ashore with the bodies of the dead were stopped at 9:15. Was it a.m. or p.m.? That, like so much of the last hours of the steamer SS Portland, remains in dispute.
In a few fateful hours, somewhere overnight between November 26 and 27, 1898, decisions were made that led to the worst maritime disaster in the history of New England.
For more than 100 years the Portland was missing, resting on the floor of the Atlantic somewhere off New England, victim of a vicious storm that killed the steamship and everyone on board.
Specialists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that the steamship's location had been found Thursday, at an undisclosed spot in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and showed the first pictures of the wreck.
"We are excited to be able to bring some closure to one of New England's most mysterious shipwrecks," said Craig MacDonald, NOAA's superintendent of the marine sanctuary.
"The story of the Steamship Portland and its fatal last run from Boston to Portland, Maine, has intrigued maritime historians for years due to the wide-ranging reported sightings of the ship during the storm. This mission allows us to start putting some answers to the questions about its loss."
Questions abound about the Portland. Even the exact number of fatalities in the wreck of the 7 p.m. Boston, Massachusetts, to Portland, Maine, steamer is a matter of dispute, as the only complete passenger list sank with the ship, but estimates put the death toll around 190.
Blame for the tragedy is also a matter of debate among historians, but some facts are clear.
As the Portland prepared to set out to sea, a powerful storm, swirling out of the Gulf of Mexico, headed up the East Coast. It would fatally combine with another storm heading from the Great Lakes, a deadly mix which would ultimately produce hurricane-force winds and wreck or sink 140 vessels and devastate New England coastal communities.
But on India Wharf as passengers began to arrive for the night steamer, unusually busy following the Thanksgiving holiday, there was no sign of what was to come.
Throughout the day, warnings of the impending storm were passed from the Boston weather bureau to the Boston agent of the Portland Steam Packet Company, C.F. Williams, but preparations to sail continued unchecked.
Some say that the Portland -based general manger of the line, John Liscomb, was so fanatical about his steamers leaving on time that none dare contradict him, though it is known he tried to get a message to Boston to delay departure by two hours. But he could not get through.
Some say the captain, Hollis H. Blanchard, thought he could outrun the storm to Portland.
For whatever reason, at 7 p.m. the whistle of the Portland sounded and she headed out to sea.
It was the last confirmed time she was heard.
The stately Portland was a beautiful, luxurious 281-foot steamer with 42-foot beam, but with a draft of only 11 feet, the vessel was cruelly unsuitable for the heavy seas it met that night.
Once the storm set in, the steamer was driven ahead of the wind, and unconfirmed sightings from other captains battling the storm that night put it well south of Boston.
Eventually, it went down into the storm-tossed ocean.
Bodies wash ashore
In the days after the storm, debris from the Portland's bridge -- and the bodies of 38 victims -- washed up along 30 miles of Cape Cod beach.
That, together with the lack of an exact time of its sinking, left its final resting place a mystery until 1989, when the initial sightings of the wreckage were made by John Fish and Arnold Carr of American Underwater Search and Survey.
They announced their find but could not produce photographs of the wreck.
The new pictures show the Portland rests upright on the floor of a marine sanctuary near the tip of Cape Cod, NOAA researchers said Thursday. Their announcement capped a month-long mission to photograph the vessel.
Video taken by a remotely operated vehicle shows the ship's hull intact on the ocean floor, with much of its superstructure missing. The rudder and elements of the ship's paddle wheels are visible, allowing researchers to identify the wreck positively as the Portland.
The mission also took side-scan sonar images of the ship.
The Portland disaster, known to some as the "New England Titanic," led to changes in maritime practice in the United States: The wreck hastened the end of the era of side-wheel steamers, which were commonly used for short coastal trips in the late 1800s and shortly after the wreck, laws were passed requiring all passenger ships to leave passenger lists ashore before departing.
"We are excited to be able to bring some closure to one of New England's most mysterious shipwrecks," said Craig MacDonald, NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. "The story of the Steamship Portland and its fatal last run from Boston to Portland, Maine, has intrigued maritime historians for years due to the wide-ranging reported sightings of the ship during the storm. This mission allows us to start putting some answers to the questions about its loss."
The location of the wreck within the sanctuary's boundaries provides special legal protection from bounty hunters. Sanctuary regulations prohibit moving, removing or injuring, or attempting to move, remove or injure any submerged cultural or historical resources, including artifacts and pieces from shipwrecks, a NOAA statement said.
"While the Sanctuary has been most associated with whales and whale watching, it also serves as a steward of the submerged historical and cultural resources within its boundaries," said NOAA's MacDonald. "We are extremely proud that our first dedicated mission to search and explore has produced such exciting results."
Congress designated the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in 1992 as "an area of special national significance." Virtually the size of the state of Rhode Island, the sanctuary stretches between Cape Ann and Cape Cod in federal waters off of Massachusetts. The sanctuary is renowned as a major feeding area for marine mammals, particularly humpback whales, and supports an ecosystem of diverse wildlife, the NOAA statement said.
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