This day in nautical history: The Portland Gale

Samuel Ward Stanton’s sketch of the Steamer Portland, which was lost in what would become known as the Portland Gale:

Portland (sidewheeler 1890)

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Samuel Ward Stanton (1870-1912).

The Portland Gale

On the evening of November 26th, 1898, the Boston area was hit with a fierce storm known as the infamous Portland Gale. This storm was significant to Boston and notably the South Shore due to its devastating impact. Among the many vessels lost, one of the most notable was the Portland, a steam ship carrying passengers to Portland, Maine from India Wharf in Downtown Boston. The ship allegedly became stuck in the storm and sunk, representing one of the greatest losses of life at sea in the Boston area at the time. Additionally, it was this storm which changed the path of the North River, to the effect of what is now the barrier island of Humarock being separated from Scituate.

The Sinking of the Portland

A gale is defined by the National Weather Service as sustained surface winds between 39 and 57 mph, so this means a pretty strong storm with the potential to cause large and destructive waves. All in, this storm may have been similar to the Nor’easter we saw here a couple of weeks ago. Evidently, the Portland, despite being a large vessel of nearly 300 feet, was swept up in the storm and was pushed far to the Southeast of Boston, despite being spotted off the coast of Thacher Island, well Northeast of the city, earlier on the night it went down. This is eerily similar to the Gloucester fishing boat that was swept to Cohasset in the big storm a couple of weeks back. The Portland allegedly sunk on the morning of November 27th, 1898.

Changed course of the North River

Another impact of the Portland Gale was that it created a new path for the North River, thereby separating present day Humarock, previously know as Scituate’s Fourth Cliff. Here is the present route of the North River, dividing the towns of Scituate and Marshfield. Note the separation of the Humarock Peninsula, which was previously attached to Scituate:

NOAA Nautical Chart. Not for offcial use or Navigation. See disclaimer at

The North River and Humarock Cliff from the North River bridge on Route 3a. Note Humarock is at the rear, right side of the photo:

Today, the wreck of the Portland has been discovered by divers in Stellwagen bank, but its location is being kept a secret to protect the Stellwagen Conservation area.

Check out our most recent “This day in Nautical History” post about the wreck of the Brig St. John of Cohasset’s shores.


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