In the icy waters of the Atlantic, 300 feet beneath the sea off the Massachusetts coast, the 280-foot-long steamship SS Portland sits upright on the ocean floor, a rusty shipwrecked testament to the worst marine disaster in New England history.
The Portland – also known as “The Titanic of New England” – was last seen being battered by 90 mile per hour winds and a wall of waves on November 26, 1898. Launched in 1889, the Portland was one of the most luxurious coastal steamships of its day, but it was not equipped to withstand nature’s brutal assault at sea. It sank on a foggy night in blustery winds and driving snow. All 192 passengers and crew were killed.
The steamer SS Portland operated between Portland, Maine, and Boston, and was considered one of the most palatial coastal steamships afloat. The Maine-built wooden-hulled paddle wheel steamship transported thousands of passengers and tons of cargo along the New England coast and earned a reputation as a safe and dependable vessel, until its loss with all hands in November 1898. The shipwreck also represents New England’s greatest steamship disaster prior to 1900.
Today, even from the ocean’s depths, the wooden-hulled, paddle-wheeled steamship tells a tragic story of 22 African-Americans who were lost at sea, 19 of whom were members of the Abyssinian Meeting House. Built in 1828, the Meeting House was the city’s primary institution for African-American culture and politics, and the nation’s third oldest meeting house. It was also the first site in Maine to be listed on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
The untimely deaths of the African-American crewmembers represented 10 percent of the meeting house’s congregation. Within a decade of the steamship’s sinking, the Abyssinian congregation dwindled to seven people and devastated the core of Portland’s African-American community which led to the closing of the Meeting House in 1916. An effort is currently underway to restore the meeting house and use it to preserve and promote Maine’s African-American heritage.
In 2002, NOAA confirmed the location of the steamship Portland in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. The steamship’s hull sits nearly upright on the bottom over 300 feet down. Its upper decks are gone exposing many artifacts and the steamer’s complete walking-beam steam engine.
|Deployment of the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut’s ROV Hela used to explore the Portland. (Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum.)|
The Portland is the most intact example of a New England night boat located to date and in 2005 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its historical and archaeological significance. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is currently undertaking a project to uncover the stories of Portland’s African-American crew as part of a larger initiative to document the lives of all of the people who perished onboard the Portland.