Portland Gale victims (d 1898).
Three modest stones, otherwise anonymous and unremarkable, are just about all that exists in Provincetown as tangible witness to the horror of the Portland Gale of late November 1898. The storm — actually a dreadful collision of two gales — claimed more than 400 lives along the coast, nearly half of whom were passengers and crew aboard the 291-foot, eight-year-old, paddle-wheel steamer Portland, which was bound from Boston for its namesake city in Maine. Capt. Hollis H. Blanchard was aware of the impending storm coming in from the Great Lakes, but believed he could outrun it to Portland and be safely docked by the time the gale reached New England, Edward Rowe Snow wrote in Storms and Shipwrecks of New England (1943). The impending threat posed by another gale churning up the Atlantic Coast may have been less evident to Captain Blanchard. In any case, Portland departed India Wharf punctually at 7 o’clock on the night of Saturday, 26 November.
Her ghostly manifestation in Provincetown came early the next morning, around 5:45, when — at the Race Point Life-Saving Station — Capt. Samuel O. Fisher heard four blasts from a steamer’s whistle. Roughly four hours later came an eerie clearing, with a bit of sunshine, when Highland Light would have been visible from Portland. Whatever relief the 190 or so people aboard the vessel may have felt at this moment was soon dashed as the snowy storm closed in again. It’s probably a great mercy that we cannot know what those final hours were like for the crew and passengers, as their agony may have endured another 12 hours before the battered vessel finally foundered, some 20 miles north of Race Point, in what is now the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The hull was tentatively identified in 1989. Confirmation came in 2002.
The stones mark three graves: that of an unidentified passenger, roughly 35 years old, whose body was found in Herring Cove; that of another unidentified passenger from Portland; and that of an unidentified victim of the storm who was frozen to death in the rigging of the schooner Lester A. Lewis in Provincetown Harbor, according to Provincetown Massachusetts Cemetery Inscriptions (1980).
¶ Last updated on 7 October 2017.
Provincetown’s Historic Cemeteries and Memorials, Key O-35, Page 9.