BOSTON (CBS) – This week marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and as we talked to people in our area about that disaster, we learned more about another tragedy that became known as the “Titanic of New England.” It happened in 1898 just after Thanksgiving when a steamship carrying about 200 people from Boston to Portland, Maine was lost. And when the Steamship Portland went down, the sorrow and drama captured the attention of the nation.
“The Steamship Portland was a wooden side paddle-wheel steamship,” says Matthew Lawrence, a maritime archeologist at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Scituate. “That was before we had I-95 where you could get to Portland in about three hours,” he adds.
The Portland was a shuttle of sorts with daily sailings between Boston and Portland. The trip was about 11 hours. “People would board the steamship, travel overnight and wake up the next morning rested to continue on their voyage,” says Lawrence.
Today the ship rests off the coast of Cape Ann, in part of the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary. It was a massive storm that took the Portland down. “The steamship went out into Massachusetts Bay and fought the wind and waves for over 12 hours until it finally succumbed to the torrential blowing snow, the 20 foot waves and the high winds,” says Lawrence. “No one was left to tell the story of the Portland’s loss,” he adds.
But the newspapers tried. It was a story that gripped the country, and when the mighty Titanic went down just 14 years later, the Portland tragedy was given a new name. “The Steamship Portland is considered the Titanic of New England because of the impact on the coastal communities for the loss of all the people who were on board,” says Lawrence.
The exact location of the wreck was a mystery for decades. Robotic cameras found the ship about a hundred years after it sank. But Bob Foster and four other divers from Boston’s Deep Wrecks were the first to make the dangerous dive some 500 feet below the surface to actually visit the Portland. That was in 2008. “It’s an eerie feeling to be down there,” says Foster. “Just the number of personal artifacts, the dishes, the china, the bottles, the personal items are strewn really everywhere and they really remind you of the horrible loss of life,” he says.
For it’s time, the SS Portland was one of New England’s largest and most luxurious steamers. The loss is considered by many to be the worst in the region’s maritime history. “You feel like it’s a real privilege to go down there and see what really nobody’s seen before,” says Foster.