Brian Kaczor, of Durham, reads the names of those who died in the sinking of the SS Portland in 1898 as Herb Adams tolls a bell Saturday during a memorial service marking the 125 anniversary of the tragedy, which claimed at least 198 lives. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In Portland’s historical Abyssinian Meeting House, 198 names were read aloud Saturday remembering those who perished 125 years ago in New England’s worst maritime disaster.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1898, at least 68 crew members and 130 passengers boarded the SS Portland in Boston and headed for Portland. They never reached their destination. By the next day, each was gone, swallowed by the sea off Cape Cod during a fierce blizzard.

Saturday’s memorial service included prayers, song and remembrance of the lives lost, reflecting how services would have been 125 years ago.

Penelope Hamblin, of South Portland, said it was fitting that the memorial service was held at the Abyssinian. Hamblin is a docent at Portland’s Evergreen Cemetery and has led tours of graves, specifically victims of the SS Portland.

The disaster hit hard for the entire city of Portland, she said. “A third of the passengers were from Portland; half the crew was from Portland.”

But no community was more impacted than that “where we are standing,” at the meeting house, Hamblin said. In 1898, there were only about 300 African Americans living in Portland, and of the estimated 68 crew members on the SS Portland, more than a third were from Abyssinian’s community. “The congregation of this meeting house was hugely impacted.”


Inside the meeting house, Leonard Cummings welcomed the group of about 20 people who attended Saturday. Cummings is the founding president of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, which opened in 1834 and closed in 1917. The Newbury Street building is the third-oldest Black-built church in the United States, said Pamela Cummings, co-president of the committee.

The Rev. Jeff McIlwain of North Star AME Zion Church in New Hampshire offered prayers and remembered those lost at sea and the families who mourned. With a moving voice, he led the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

The Rev. Jeff McIlwain of North Star AME Zion delivers an invocation at a memorial service for those who perished on the SS Portland, which sank on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1898. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Historian Herb Adams, who organized the memorial, shared some of what was known of the 1898 disaster.

In 1898, steamships were the traditional and most elegant way to travel the Maine coast or to Boston and New York. The SS Portland was an elaborate white-and-gold steamship. It featured a main saloon lit with a dome skylight, the Portland Evening Express wrote. The ship was furnished with richly carved mahogany furniture with wine-colored plush upholstery and velvet carpets.

Setting off from Boston, “with a blast of its whistles it headed home, here, to Portland,” Adams said. “Just like today, it was the first Saturday after Thanksgiving. Families headed home from one holiday to the next holiday, just like us.”

A painting by Antonio Jacobsen of the SS Portland, which sank on Nov. 27, 1898. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The ship carried a cross-section of Portland. The passengers and crew members were born everywhere, not only in Portland but also Jamaica, Virginia, Maryland, Ireland, Brazil, New Brunswick and Norway. They included rich businessmen, common laborers, seamstresses, immigrants, singers, barbers, big politicians, husbands and wives, children and infants.


“Many Portlanders were serving in traditional sea trades occupied by their families since the Revolution,” Adams said. “Many of them were parishioners of this meeting house, within these walls, where they will be remembered today.”

Somewhere off Cape Cod, the sea claimed their lives.

“An enormous storm – unprecedented, biblical – claimed them,” Adams said. “This storm was called the great ‘Portland Gale.’ All were lost. It was called in later years the greatest wind that ever swallowed New England.”

In a sense, the SS Portland “was Maine’s Titanic,” Adams said.

The SS Portland wreck was discovered badly damaged in 2002 off Cape Cod. The wreck has been filmed and explored by scientists. But one mystery is why Capt. Hollis Blanchard steered out of Boston’s harbor when other boats had turned around, heading back to port because of an approaching storm, according to a 1998 Press Herald story.

While Blanchard and his superiors knew a storm was approaching, no one was prepared for the intensity and duration: It lasted 30 hours, dropped as much as 2 feet of snow inland and delivered coastal wind gusts of 100 mph.


The exact number of deaths on the SS Portland isn’t clear, Adams said. “The only manifest was aboard the ship itself. There were about 68 crews and about 130 passengers, about 198 people. But I suspect there were more whose names we do not know. It was the largest loss of life at sea in a single storm in Maine history.”

The disaster left empty seats at hundreds of family Christmas tables and in churches across Portland, Adams said. Special services were held in Portland for weeks.

Today, the great-grandchildren of those lost at sea still remember their families’ stories. “So we should at least gather to remember their names in this special place,” Adams said. “The Greeks believe, making sense of their world, that as long as one’s name was said aloud now and then, the departed were never really gone.”

Historian Herb Adams, right, embraces Leonard Cummings, founding president of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, after a memorial service Saturday for those who perished on the SS Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Adams and others started reading each of the 198 names, taking turns calling out one name, followed by the ringing of a mariner’s bell.

First, the 68 names of crew members were read, followed by the 130 names of the passengers.

The first name read was Hollis H. Blanchard, captain.


The bell chimed.

Then Henry George Allen, who worked as a porter on the ship, followed by the bell chime. Then Matthew Barron, a deckhand.

Reading names continued for 25 minutes, illustrating the reality of how many perished. The last three names read were passengers Alonzo F. Wildes, Frank I. Wilson and Henry Demerritt Young.

Attendee David Smith, of Portland, said he drew a parallel between the 1898 disaster “and what happened recently in Lewiston – the families and communities affected in the same ways.”

Sue Devine, of Yarmouth, said what Adams spoke of resonated with her, particularly the belief that if someone’s name is said, “they’re not forgotten.”

Ben Smith, of Portland, rests a candle in a window of the Abyssinian Meeting House before Saturday’s memorial service for those who perished on the SS Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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