Mystery shrouds ship that named Thanksgiving storm Portland and all aboard lost off cape a century ago

November 26, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

At 7 p.m. on Nov. 26 a century ago, the steamer Portland sailed from India Wharf in Boston with about 190 passengers and crew. Their destination was Portland, Maine, but their destiny was death in a storm that ultimately would bear the ship's name.

George Kenniston Jr., a 20-year-old Bowdoin College student, was aboard, returning from a Thanksgiving at his Aunt Mabel's home in Hyde Park. Waiting in Maine was his brother William, a country doctor who kept a journal.

The journal, found recently by a grandson, details how William waited in vain, first for his brother's ship to arrive, then for his brother's body to wash ashore.

No shipwreck has claimed more lives in New England waters than that of the Portland, historians say. An estimated 450 people died in the Portland Storm, which claimed at least 150 ships.

The decision by Hollis Blanchard, the captain of the Portland, to cast off while many other captains heeded the storm warnings, remains a mystery.

Another surrounds where the wreck lies. About midnight the next evening, the first of two-dozen bodies washed up on the outer shore of Cape Cod. Their watches had stopped either at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m., the time difference key to where the ship foundered.

If the watches stopped that morning, currents and wind had many hours to carry the wreckage southeast. If the Portland sank that evening -- hours before wreckage was discovered on the beach -- the wreck would have been nearby. The late maritime author Edward Rowe Snow insists in his writings that the ship is off the cape. Shipwreck researchers Arnold Carr and John Fish say it is midway between Cape Cod and Cape Ann, and that they have found the wreck using underwater scanning equipment.

The Portland was a 281-foot paddle-wheeler with luxury accommodations and a $1 fare -- because it was competing with rail transport between Boston and Portland. The only passenger list went down with the ship.

Shortly afterward, copies of passenger lists were ordered kept on shore, and paddlewheels, ineffective in heavy seas, gave way to propellers.

Blanchard had warning that a northeaster was brewing, but he wanted to attend his daughter's birthday party in Portland.

When the Portland sailed, skies were cloudy. Within an hour, it was in the grasp of a blizzard.

"Life had been running on smoothly and pleasantly and in a way that seemed likely to continue [but now] has been changed," Dr. William Kenniston wrote in his journal shortly after the sinking.

Waking to a blizzard in late November 1898, Kenniston convinced himself that the Portland would not have sailed because of the weather. By Tuesday, he still had not heard from his brother or a friend also on board. Then he got a telegram from family members in Boston saying the ship had sailed.

By lunch he received word that debris from the steamer was washing ashore on the cape. Kenniston located the body of his friend, but not that of his brother.

"We were not alone in the search for our dead -- nor were we the only ones unsuccessful," he wrote. "Nor shall I forget the dim rays of the old undertaker's lantern in the cold shed of its ghastly tenants."

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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