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Wreck of Portland found off Cape Cod

Jan 1, 2003

On Aug. 29, underwater archaeologists and researchers confirmed that the remains of the sidewheel passenger steamer Portland had been found lying in more than 460 feet of water about 17 miles north of Provincetown, Mass. One of the most infamous shipwrecks in the annals of New England, Portland sank in a storm that damaged or sank 400 vessels and claimed the lives of 475 people around the region on the night of Nov. 26, 1898. Because the greatest single loss of life resulted from the loss of the steamer, the storm has been known ever since as the Portland Gale.

The ship was en route from Boston to its homeport on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The only known passenger manifest went down with the vessel, but historians believe 192 passengers and crew were aboard the ship. Although there was some concern about the weather forecast, the seas were calm, and there was little wind when Portland sailed from Boston's India Street Wharf at 1900. It was the quiet before the storm. Snow started falling in Boston around 1930, and the blizzard reached Cape Ann about 2000, shortly after the 281-foot steamer was seen abreast of nearby Thacher Island. According to the testimony of three different schooner captains, a steamer they each thought to be Portland was seen laboring in heavy seas about 12 to 14 miles ESE of Cape Ann an hour later. In blinding snow (10 inches fell that night in Boston) visibility was severely limited, but the sightings are consistent with what seems to have happened to the ship. In hurricane-force winds (clocked at 90 miles per hour on Cape Cod), and 30- to 40-foot seas, Portland was forced southeast across Massachusetts Bay before the superstructure ripped off the hull and it sank north of Cape Cod.

The doomed ship's location was first determined in 1989 by American Underwater Search and Survey Ltd., a company specializing in locating objects underwater. However, they lacked the means to verify their find, which was only possible with the use of side-scan sonar and remotely operated vehicle-mounted video equipment. In July 2002, the company worked with researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut to inspect the site. During two days of remote imaging, researchers identified several of the ship's features, and although no artifacts with the name Portland have been found, that is the only sidewheel steamer known to have been lost in Massachusetts Bay. The imaging also confirmed the prevailing theory of the ship's fate. According to Craig MacDonald, superintendent of the marine sanctuary, "It looks like the storm ripped off the superstructure and the vessel foundered in the very high waves."

Because the ship lies within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the site is protected under federal laws, forbidding unauthorized removal of historical artifacts from designated sites. Experts also expect the site to be nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.