New England writer J. North Conway, who has produced some 15 volumes of poetry, history and even a Revolutionary era cookbook, now turns to the loss of the steamer Portland in its namesake gale of November 26, 1898. The 291-foot-long, side-wheel passenger vessel – the flagship of the Portland Steamship Company — ran its lucrative route between Boston and Portland, Maine’s “Forest City,” on this Thanksgiving Day carrying roughly 200 passengers and crew. It was a sound ship commanded by the experienced Captain Hollis Blanchard of Searsport. His decision to set out despite somewhat ominous weather reports led to the worst maritime loss in the region’s history and endless second guessing in subsequent years by journalists, history buffs and serious scholars.

Cover courtesy of Lyons Press

Conway’s volume is not the first and will certainly not be the last to confront the story, which is the stuff of legend. Until the location of the hull was positively identified in the summer of 2002, it was often the subject of wild speculation, too. Conway tracks both the lore and serious study, including the 1989 finding of the wreck by John F. Fish, 400 feet deep in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Its identification was subsequently confirmed by high-resolution images by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as a Science Channel film that explored the remains.

Conway does a workmanlike job stitching together the progress of the mighty ship:

“There were 163 staterooms on board the palatial Portland and each was ornate and pristine. Painted white with cherry woodwork, they had carved mahogany furniture with wine-colored upholstery and plush carpets. It was by anyone’s expectations the lap of luxury. The ship was reported in the Portland Evening Express article that had been published at its launching, ‘the finest vessel that will travel the eastern waters.’”

That description from its launch at Bath in 1889 was still pretty much on target when it went down less than a decade later, give or take a bit of wear. Though “The Wreck of the Portland” is aimed at a popular audience, with an appendix, index, bibliography but no footnotes; as a historian, I can vouch for its general accuracy. The book pays homage to past studies of the wreck, including the excellent “Four Short Blasts: The Gale of 1898 and The Loss of the Steamer Portland” (1998) written by Peter Dow Bachelder and the late Mason Philip Smith. The list of those on board is the same, though the earlier book included far more illustrative material.

The question the reviewer must ask is, which book is better? Certainly, Conway offers some updated information. But would he have been better off exploring another Maine maritime disaster? There are plenty of wrecks whose sagas deserve a retelling. Writing a book takes time, beginning with choosing the right topic. “The Wreck of the Portland” fails to present much new information, though what is given is accurate and pleasingly written. Still, this reader, at least, would as soon focus on that 1989 dive, which gave a fresh look at the actual wreck, or another lost vessel with a fresh story in the offing.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History,” He is working on a history of the Maine Historical Society. Barry lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.


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