February 18

Recalling a Maine shipwreck that time nearly forgot

The RMS Bohemian struck a ledge off Cape Elizabeth in February 1864, and 42 died just as they were about to arrive in America.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Bonfires lit up the night sky on Feb. 22, 1864, as residents of Portland and Cape Elizabeth celebrated George Washington’s birthday, unaware of the large ship steaming toward them.

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Historian Matthew Jude Barker stands with the Celtic cross honoring victims of the RMS Bohemian shipwreck – “HMS” was an error, he said – in South Portland’s Calvary Cemetery.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The 1864 wreck of the British steamship RMS Bohemian is depicted in this mural inside the post office at 15 Cottage Road in South Portland. “Shipwreck at Night” was painted in 1939 by Alzira Peirce, the wife of Bangor-born painter Waldo Peirce.

Press Herald file

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Two miles offshore, most of the passengers aboard the RMS Bohemian slept as the ship neared the end of a long, rough crossing from England. All was peaceful on board until the veteran ship captain suddenly found himself and the ship in a “peculiar haze” that proved both disorienting and disastrous.

By the end of that night, the ship would strike Alden Rock, an underwater ledge off the coast of Cape Elizabeth. Forty-two people drowned, most of them Irish emigrants planning to start new lives in Boston, New York or Quebec. The ship’s cargo spread across Casco Bay.

Back on shore, local residents mistook the distress flares and gunfire from the sinking ship as part of the holiday celebrations.

It would remain, even 150 years later, the worst shipwreck ever recorded in Casco Bay and one of the worst along the Maine coast. But except for a few reminders scattered around Greater Portland, it is largely forgotten.

“As a general rule, the story of the Bohemian is relatively unknown,” said Matthew Jude Barker, a local historian and author.

Barker will recount the harrowing tale of the Bohemian during a lecture at the Irish Heritage Center on Saturday, the 150th anniversary of the shipwreck. The free event, which begins at 2 p.m., will feature Barker talking about the ship and its connection to the history of Maine’s Irish community.

DISORIENTED BY ‘PECULIAR HAZE’

It was a calm winter evening in 1864 as the Royal Mail Ship Bohemian headed toward Casco Bay, loaded with $1 million in silk, pottery and other cargo, 218 passengers and 99 crew members.

The three-decked ship was 295-feet long. It was steam-driven but also had three masts and sails for propulsion.

Most of the passengers aboard were Irish emigrants, traveling in steerage compartments with all of their belongings and dreams of a better life in America or Canada.

The Scottish-built ship, slowed by bad weather, was 18 days out of Liverpool and five days overdue to reach Portland.

Capt. Robert Borland had sailed into Portland nine times before. But on this night, he would say, he found himself disoriented by a “peculiar haze” a few miles off shore. Other survivors would also describe the haze. Borland set off rockets and flares in an attempt to summon a pilot boat, not realizing he was so off course that his signals for help would go unnoticed.

A pilot boat, expecting the overdue Bohemian, was elsewhere in Casco Bay looking for the larger, three-masted ship, but was unable to find it. Borland, thinking the ship was five miles off the coast of Cape Elizabeth instead of three, continued toward land.

Then, without warning around 8:30 p.m., the belly of the ship struck Alden Rock hard enough to rip open its iron hull. The ship, then nearly two miles southeast of Cape Elizabeth, began rapidly filling with water.

Recognizing how dire the situation was, Borland ordered the ship to go full steam toward land. It was a move later credited with saving many lives.

The sinking steamship wallowed toward Cape Elizabeth for nearly a half-hour before coming to Broad Cove Rock, another underwater ledge about a quarter-mile from Maxwell’s Point. Borland ordered both anchors dropped and told his crew to start evacuating passengers.

But those passengers, groggy with sleep and stricken by fear, panicked.

SOME ESCAPE, SOME LEFT ON SHIP

In their rush to get off the ship, 16 people jumped aboard a lifeboat too soon, snapping a pin and sending them plunging into the icy water.

(Continued on page 2)

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