The SS Portland, a steamship that carried passengers between Boston and Portland, sank off the coast of Cape Cod, killing everybody on board. Now, 121 years after New England’s worst maritime disaster, scientists are exploring the shipwreck to better understand the last moments aboard the ship and document the marine species that live on it. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The luxury steamship SS Portland – often called New England’s Titanic – sank off the coast of Massachusetts during a gale 121 years ago. Researchers are now using remotely operated vehicles to get a better look at the wreckage, which sits upright in the waters of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries and Marine Imaging Technologies to explore the wreck of the SS Portland as part of a three-year project that will also include explorations of other nearby shipwrecks.

Researchers reached the shipwreck on Monday and over the course of the next few days will live-stream their work to schools and museums around the country. Viewers can also watch the exploration live on the National Marine Sanctuaries website.

Broadcasts will air at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Wednesday, and 7 p.m. Thursday. Raw footage also will be aired on the marine sanctuaries website. A program on Tuesday afternoon was a memorial of the Portland that will also be available for viewing on the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Facebook page.

On Wednesday, the Maine Historical Society will host a viewing of the exploration during which people will be able to ask the researchers questions while they work. The free interactive program will explore history, biology, underwater technology and maritime archaeology. It begins at 3 p.m. at the Maine Historical Society at 489 Congress St.

The three-year project is starting with the SS Portland because of its history, said Kristen Meyer-Kaiser, principal investigator and lead biologist for the project.


“There’s a really incredible story behind it,” she said. “It’s been called New England’s Titanic.”

The SS Portland, which carried passengers between Portland and Boston, sank in 1898, killing all of the nearly 200 people on board. It remains the largest loss of life in a single sea storm in New England history.

The Bath-built SS Portland was a 281-foot steamship regarded as one of the finest of its day, with a plush red-carpeted saloon and a gilded eagle perched atop the wheelhouse. It made the overnight journey between the two cities faithfully for a decade, earning a reputation as a safe and dependable vessel.

On Nov. 27, 1898 – two days after Thanksgiving – the ship departed Boston, only to run into a monstrous blizzard that pounded and battered the vessel.

The shipwreck lies about 460 feet below the surface in federally-protected waters, its exact location undisclosed to the public to protect it. The site was first found in 1989 and federal explorations looked at the wreck in 2002 and 2010.

Researchers will use Pixel, a cinema-class remotely operated vehicle; and Rover, an ROV equipped to collect samples from the seafloor, to assist in their exploration. The team will assemble three-dimensional photogrammetric models to measure and assess the condition of the wreck and will capture a 360-degree video to create virtual underwater tours of the shipwreck sites.

Meyer-Kaiser will focus her research on the marine life that has colonized the shipwreck, which she says serves as an “island-like habitat.” Researchers involved in the project also will study other aspects of the shipwreck, including the design of the ship and how the wreck happened.

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