Impressive storm ravaged East


January 27, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Some of the worst winter storms actually do occur in other seasons.

For instance, the great hurricane-snowstorm of Nov. 26, 1898, known as the Portland Gale, raced up the coast through Maryland, plunging temperatures and dropping snow before paralyzing Philadelphia and New York in its wake.

Moving northward, it relentlessly pounded New England for 24 hours, where it dropped eight to 24 inches of snow, killed several hundred, destroyed telephone and telegraph lines, brought railroad traffic to a halt and left nearly 200 vessels wrecked or stranded along the coast, including several from Baltimore.

Then, as now, weather forecasting was less than an exact science, and a forecast in The Sun on Nov. 25 barely hinted at the powerful tempest that was soon to sweep over the area.

"A storm of considerable strength has developed off the Middle Atlantic Coast and is centered this evening near Nantucket. The development of this disturbance has been attended by rain and snow in the Middle Atlantic and New England States and by moderate gales from Hatteras to Cape Cod."

Temperatures fell to 24 degrees in Baltimore as winds piled snow into drifts. "Later in the day the glistening particles were piled into miniature drifts wherever they were not melted and reformed into icy coating for the limbs of trees and house eaves," wrote The Sun.

"The blustery winds were a disagreeable feature of yesterday's weather. However, Baltimore was comparatively free from gales, for at Eastport, Maine, which was the temporary centre of cyclonic disturbances, the wind reached a maximum velocity of 56 miles an hour," reported the newspaper.

"The blow was of such force that the water in the harbor went out before it and left a lower mark than has been seen here for a year. The bar off Fort McHenry could have been walked upon for several hundred yards without wetting the feet, and Jones' falls bared its bosom from Gay Street to Lombard Street bridge, making it an easy matter to have walked the whole distance," said The Sun.

Wires were down in Philadelphia. Roads were impassable and milk trains bound for the city from the nearby countryside sat snowbound on snow-covered tracks. At Atlantic City, "only one wire with the outside world is in operation" while trains struggled, hours behind schedule, to reach the resort, reported the newspaper.

Things were no better in New York as the storm barreled on its way toward New England.

"The metropolis was visited last night and this morning by a blizzard more severe than any since the noted one of March, 1888," reported The Sun.

Howling winds, falling and drifting snow brought all commercial and railroad traffic to a standstill. In Boston Harbor, some 30 barges were wrecked or sunk, including two owned by Consolidation Coal Co. of Baltimore. One was the Fairfax, a 293-foot long passenger steamer owned by Baltimore's Merchant and Miners' Transportation Co. In the blinding storm, the steamer was making its way into Vineyard Sound near Buzzards Bay when it went hard onto a shoal. Passengers and crew were taken off by rescue vessels as the ship began taking on water.

"It was an awful experience," said the ship's captain, C.J. Griffith of Baltimore. "I never expected to step on shore again.

One vessel that was not so lucky was the Portland.

It was beginning to snow on the evening of Nov. 26 as the steamer Portland whistled and backed away from Boston's India Wharf for its routine voyage to Portland, Maine.

The side-wheeler was later sighted off Cape Ann, Mass., by several passing vessels, but what ultimately happened to the ship is open to speculation.

"The storm soon became a hurricane, and the great seas probably disabled the Portland, battering and pushing her across Massachusetts Bay toward Cape Cod," wrote the late Edward Rowe Snow, New England maritime expert and historian.

"Meanwhile, all along the coast those craft which could do so were scurrying for shelter. Vessel after vessel, failing to reach a snug harbor, was tossed ashore somewhere on the eastern seaboard, and every coastal area in the path of the double hurricane was seriously damaged. Giant breakers swept right through the main thoroughfares, and the tide rose even higher than during the storm which destroyed Minot's Light in 1851," wrote Snow.

The Portland was soon unreported and overdue. At the height of the storm, the timekeeper of the Race Point lifesaving station later reported hearing four short blasts - a distress signal - from a vessel.

Monday evening as a Coast Guard surfman carrying a lantern walked the deserted beach, he noticed something white in the surf.

He retrieved what turned out to be a life preserver and read its name: STR. PORTLAND. Later that evening, piles of wreckage and bodies began washing up onto the beach, and they continued to do so until early December.

There were no survivors. One hundred ninety-one passengers and crew lost their lives; only 36 bodies were ever recovered. It wasn't until 1945 that divers visited the wreck site off High Head Life Saving Station on Cape Cod.

"She was swallowed up by the sea off Cape Cod with not a survivor to tell the tale," observed The Sun.

"Because of the many relatives and friends of those who went down on the steamer, the unusual conditions preceding her sailing and the mystery which still surrounds her sinking, the story of the Portland will always remain New England's greatest saga of the vengeful sea," wrote Snow.

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