On Nov. 26 and 27, 1898, a powerful storm raced up the Atlantic coast. Formed when two low-pressure systems collided in spectacular fashion off the coast of Virginia, this turbulent storm became known as the Portland Gale, named for the doomed steamship the SS Portland that was sent to a watery grave, caught at sea in the height of the deadly squall.

Nov. 26 started off as a quiet day at India Street Wharf in Boston where the Portland was docked. Passengers coming from New York and Philadelphia after visiting with family for the Thanksgiving holiday were beginning to board the vessel for the voyage later that evening.

The Portland was a popular means of transportation for the well-to-do of the time. It was comfortably appointed and decorated in the fashion of the Gilded Age. According to the Portland Evening Express, “The main salon was lighted with a dome skylight, finished in the Corinthian style of architecture and furnished with richly carved mahogany furniture with wine-colored plush upholstery. The floors are covered in velvet carpet.” The cost for the eight- to nine-hour journey on the elegant vessel was $1 for a one-way trip.

Later in the afternoon while waiting to board the ship, a passenger from Brooklin, Maine, named Goff noticed a strange, yellow glow in the sky. Then he spotted a cat leaving the vessel, taking her kittens one by one down the gangway. Goff took this as an omen and decided not to board the ship. Sadly, the boat’s captain, Hollis Blanchard, did not have access to the ominous sight.

He was still busily preparing for the night’s voyage, confident that he could beat the impending storm coming from the Great Lakes and make it safely to port in Portland. There was no mention from the weather service of any other storms on the horizon.

At 5:30 that evening, the general manager of The Portland Steam Packet Company, the owner of the ship, called the Portland and ordered the vessel to be held until 9 p.m. It would then be determined if the weather was safe enough to make the voyage. Either Blanchard did not get the message or he ignored it. The Portland cast off at 7 p.m. when there was no abundant wind or snow. But by 11:45, things had dramatically changed. At that time, a schooner named the Edgar Randall reported nearly colliding with a badly damaged steamship running without lights. Unfortunately, Capt. Blanchard could not communicate his dire situation to port. The storm’s fury had cut off communication all the way from Boston to Cape Cod.

It is still unknown exactly how the Portland met its final fate. Some theories are that it collided with the schooner Addie E. Snow, whose wreckage was found less than a quarter of a mile from the Portland off the coast of Cape Cod. Some believe the strength of the winds and the waves simply tore the ship apart. It had to have been a harrowing experience for the passengers in either case. It will never be known exactly who those passengers were since the only passenger list went down with the ship on that fateful day.

Aboard a schooner also caught in the peak of the storm, a witness described it as “frightful, the biggest I ever saw, and the gale swept us at its mercy.” A lighthouse keeper on Cape Cod reported, “The wild fury of the wind and driving snow continued without abatement until late in the afternoon (on the 27th). At times the force and roar of the tempest were so appalling as to be indescribable.”

And in Portland, a young housemaid from South Windham named Lena Megguier wrote in her diary, “Oh my, such a blizzard. It is bitter cold and the snow is coming down in sheets. At sea, the Portland sunk and 150 lives were lost.”

In reality, 192 passengers and crew lost their lives aboard the Portland on that tragic day, but they were not the only victims of the gale. The vicious storm killed more than 400 people in its wake and sank over 150 boats and ships, making it the worst sea disaster of the 19th century.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and an active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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