In late August, a NOAA remote, deep-sea sonar device exploring Massachusetts Bay sent up images of the hulk of a ship, which was soon identified as a 280-foot steamship that was last seen, with her 192 passengers and crew, in a storm 104 years ago. The discovery of the Portland became front-page news across the country and fascinated thousands of maritime history buffs who knew of this vessel’s disappearance on November 27, 1898. Having recently written at length about her in my new book, After the Storm, I was eager to test my understanding of her catastrophe. While the wreck lies a few miles north of where I thought she went down, I was correct in speculating that she was sunk not by a collision (her hull shows no holes) but because her deck was ripped off, probably by a great wave.
The news triggered thoughts about her loss and, especially, the vilification of her captain for taking the ship to sea on that long-ago Thanksgiving weekend. For over a century, New Englanders have included Hollis Blanchard in a roster of shame alongside Lizzie Borden and the witch-hangers of Salem. But I disagree. While an aggressive skipper was partially responsible, the loss of the Portland was brought about as well by circumstances that are all too typical in storms — a missed weather forecast, and distractions that obsessed people who were in a position to stop a ship from heading out.
The gale that has come to be called the Portland storm was a double storm—a merger of a well-predicted huge, cold depression sweeping in from the Great Lakes with a small, warm and moist depression racing up the Atlantic coast and all but invisible to weather watchers ashore. Far more violent than the mere sum of its parts, the coastal storm winds reached almost 90 knots. From New York to eastern Maine, it halted train and ferry service, tore up harbors, set ocean liners and lightships adrift, and wrecked or disabled at least 350 vessels. The storm and its accompanying blizzard killed more Americans in 36 hours than three months of combat in the recently completed Spanish-American War.
The best known victim was the luxury overnight steamer Portland, which at 7:00 p.m. on November 26th set out in a calm from Boston, bound for Portland, Maine. Before casting off from India Wharf, Captain Hollis Blanchard (one of the few senior masters of his day to take scientific meteorology seriously) visited the local Weather Bureau office and reviewed the weather maps. After talking with his superiors, who gave him confused advice, he headed out on schedule under the conviction that he could out-race the Great Lakes depression to Portland. He showed no sign of awareness of the coastal storm and the havoc that its merger with the Lakes low was creating as it moved north over eastern Long Island, Nantucket, and outer Cape Cod.
Two hours later, as the Portland passed Gloucester, she was enveloped by the blizzard. The huge white side-wheeler was seen or heard from six times over the next 14 hours—the last at about 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, the 27th, several miles north of Cape Cod
As a vessel, the Portland was totally unsuited for the storm. Wide, shallow, and top-heavy (the ship’s bell, way aloft, weighed more than 500 pounds), she had been built to run rivers, not survive storms at sea. What another captain said of his side-wheeler applied to the whole breed: “She is only fit for smooth water.” Yet Captain Blanchard kept this immense pumpkin-seed-shaped ship not only afloat, but twice that night—in acts of astonishing seamanship — he succeeded in turning her around, passing through the trough of the sea without breaking waves’ getting under the sidewheels and lifting off the deck.
Blanchard’s seamanship and luck ran out on Sunday morning at about 9:30 (we know the time because watches on the bodies of victims were stopped at around that moment). That was soon after the storm’s eye passed over Cape Cod. The wind briefly died, then backed into the northwest at its old velocity. The confusion of the sea can only be imagined. I believe (and the recent discovery proves) that one or more rogue waves broadsided her and ripped her deck right off before she filled and sank.
“The night the Portland went down” became one of those events against which people measure time. Her loss had tragic consequences for many individuals, and also for the African American communities of New England. Besides an unknown number of black passengers, between 30 and 40 African Americans from Portland—one-tenth the city’s black population—were among the ship’s crew. Widows haunted the steamship offices for days, hoping for good news that never came The disaster led to the breakup of the city’s oldest organization of African Americans, the Abyssinian Church.
There have been two mysteries concerning the Portland. The first is what happened to her and where. That is now solved with her discovery in 460 feet of water about 20 miles north of Cape Cod. The second mystery is why Captain Hollis Blanchard headed out on such a night. Because it has long been assumed that he somehow knew of the coming double storm, his reputation is one of the casualties of the Portland storm. One newspaper at the time insisted that he had engaged either in “criminal ignorance” or “criminal negligence.”
Blaming the victim is a phenomenon of many sad events. It is a natural human instinct to seek protection from chaos by blaming other people for their troubles, even when those troubles are, in fact, far beyond human control. In the days after the 1979 Fastnet storm, for example, the many men and women who suffered through the experience were harshly scolded for their lack of foresight and seamanship—even though the weather agencies’ storm predictions were tardy, and even though the blow reached hurricane proportions.
Rather than string up Captain Blanchard, let’s ask a reasonable question: Why would a 30-year veteran of New England steamboats, a highly experienced pilot and ship’s officer, casually risk his ship and his life? That he was partially responsible is clear. Blanchard was by nature a striver and a hard-driving storm racer—a man who (like many of us) watched the weather closely and scientifically, but also liked to challenge it. I am sure that he studied the weather maps, saw the Great Lakes low coming in from the west, and decided that he could beat the blow over the short 90-mile run to Portland.
Two institutions were in a position to rein in Blanchard. One was the U.S. Weather Bureau, the other the ship’s owner and manager, the Portland Steamship Company. Where were they on Thanksgiving weekend, 1898?
After the storm, the head of the Weather Bureau, Willis Moore, blamed everything on Blanchard, who he claimed had been fully warned about the coastal low and the double storm. Yet the Weather Bureau’s own internal history of the Portland gale, written soon after it tore up New England, says nothing to indicate that the bureau’s serious concern lay anywhere but with the Great Lakes depression. While that low was “predicted” (said the internal history), the coastal one was merely “indicated.” In the days before ship-to-shore radios and telegraphs, storms at sea were hard to track. Even today, with weather satellites, their movements are not always predicted accurately. (The Fastnet gale disappeared for almost a day before it reached Ireland.)
Moore was unable to admit the bureau’s failing then and at other times. Two years later (as Erik Larson reports in his book Isaac’s Storm), the Weather Bureau forecast “possibly brisk northerly winds” for the day on which a hurricane destroyed Galveston, Texas, yet Willis Moore later—against all evidence—declared that his office had issued a timely storm warning.
If anybody could have stopped Blanchard, it was the hierarchy of the Portland Steamship Company, who were aware of his propensity to take chances. So why didn’t they order him to remain tied up? The answer to that question is that on the evening of November 26, 1898, the Portland Steamship Company was a mess. Due to a series of deaths and retirements, nobody with high responsibility (including Blanchard) had been in his job longer than three weeks. Worse yet, the company’s manager in Maine was unavailable because he had taken a train to Boston for the Sunday funeral of the line’s senior captain. Add to that disarray the absence from the ship’s bridge of Blanchard’s chief mates, who also had taken leave for the funeral.
So the storm racer was left to his own impulses. To restate the problem in contemporary terms, risk management was in serious decline at headquarters at the very time when it should have been the highest priority.
On the most threatening day of her nine-year existence, therefore, the sidewheeler Portland was in a situation that would be the despair of any well-run organization. People were so distracted by shoreside concerns that the single most crucial decision to be made that day—whether it was safe to sail—was left to the one man who, despite his many abilities, was temperamentally least qualified to choose wisely. In short, one of the worst maritime disasters in New England’s history occurred for the banal reason that the participants were all too human.