fb-pixelExploring the wreck of the steamship Portland, ‘the Titanic of New England’ - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Exploring the wreck of the steamship Portland, ‘the Titanic of New England’

The steamship Portland sank in November 1898 off Cape Ann.Peabody Essex Museum

On Nov. 27, 1898 the paddle wheel steamship Portland was on its way from Boston to Maine when it got caught in a storm and sank off the coast of Massachusetts. Everyone on board — all 130 passengers and more than 60 crew members — perished.

It was the New England’s greatest steamship disaster at the time, and later became known as the “Titanic of New England.”

This week, when researchers explore the Portland and other shipwrecks in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the public will be able to follow along and see the wrecks up close through live online broadcasts on Sept. 17, 18, and 19.


The expedition is being led by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Marine Imaging Technologies. By visiting the final resting place of the Portland, researchers will document changes that have occurred at the site of the wreck and gain more insight into the fate of the doomed steamer.

For decades, the whereabouts of the wreck remained a mystery. Soon after the Portland sank, The Boston Globe organized its own search for the lost steamship, and sent two tugboats out to Provincetown to drag around the area of Peaked Hill bars. After those search efforts didn’t turn up anything, on Dec. 15, 1898 The Globe reported that the steamship must have wrecked elsewhere. That assumption would later prove to be correct.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the Portland was located, and the NOAA officially confirmed the steamship’s identity in 2002.

It’s still unclear how many people were aboard when the Portland sank, because the only passenger list went down with the steamship. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s website lists the names of 130 passengers and 63 crew members who were aboard the Portland, along with the names of 52 others who may have possibly been aboard.

Boston Globe

Anne Smrcina, the education and outreach coordinator for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, said the wreck of the Portland sits in over 400 feet of water southeast of Cape Ann.

She said the Portland left Boston at 7 p.m. Nov. 26, 1898, and because the watches on the bodies that washed ashore had stopped around 9:30, it’s believed that the ship wrecked at 9:30 in the morning on the 27th, she said.


Smrcina said the purpose of the expedition is to assess the condition of the wreck and look at the marine life that inhabits the site.

Researchers will use a remotely operated vehicle to explore the shipwrecks and record ultra-high resolution imagery and bring samples up from the seafloor. They’ll also record 360-degree video to create virtual underwater tours of the sites.

“It’s such an exciting project,” she said. “We’re hoping to get great imagery.”

The livestream will be available on the NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries website and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s website. Viewers will also be able to interact with scientists by submitting questions through a form below the live feed.

According to the expedition website, opportunities to interact with the team are scheduled during the following live broadcasts:

Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 2 p.m.

Portland memorial: Recognition ceremony for New England’s Titanic

Learn more about history of the Portland and its tragic sinking in 1898. There will also be a memorial ceremony in honor of those who lost their lives aboard the doomed steamship.

Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Deep-sea exploration: Biology and archaeology in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Explore the wreck of the Portland and hear from expedition scientists who study the communities of marine life that make shipwrecks their home.


Thursday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.

Deep-sea exploration: Biology and archaeology in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Viewers will explore the shipwrecks of the Frank A. Palmer and Louise B. Crary, two coal schooners that collided in Massachusetts Bay on Dec. 17, 1902.

“They sank within minutes,” Smrcina said. “They’re sitting at the bottom still locked at their bows.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.