Seafaring disaster remembered by Truro man

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Debert man was among nearly 200 who died when S.S. Portland wrecked on the New England coast

TRURO – The ill-fated voyage of a ship 115 years ago nicknamed “The Titanic of New England” has left a lasting impact on the life of a Truro man.

For as long as he can remember Don Davidson has wondered what really happened on Nov. 26, 1898 when his grandfather James W. Davidson and about 200 crew and passengers onboard the S.S. Portland steamer, disappeared during one of the worst storms of record to hit the New England coast.

“It always comes up to my mind every year when that times rolls around,” said Davidson.

“We never knew for many years after that there was any trace of them.”

At the time of the tragedy, James was 31 and as an officer, he earned a tremendous wage of about $30 per month.

While he worked in the United States, his wife and four children, including Don’s father, lived on a farm in Debert.

It is through Davidson’s father’s memories and those shared by his grandmother that he has kept his grandfather’s memory alive.

“It left quite a hardship for her when he was gone,” said Davidson. “I think his last trip home to Nova Scotia was in October.”

The luxury steamship was built in 1889 by the New England Shipbuilding Co. and was put into service to run between Portland and Boston.

The wooden side, paddle-wheel steamship, was a preferred mode of transportation in that era, ferrying passengers between the two major ports.

“The railroad was making inroads, putting more pressure on them to sail in weather that wasn’t too favourable and that’s what happened,” said Davidson.

“The Portland steamer left her berth at Boston in the early evening of Nov. 26, 1898 and Portland, Maine, was her destination but it never arrived there, for as she turned her course northeastward towards Maine she plowed into the teeth of one of New England’s worst November storms of record. With such terrific winds of 80 km or better.”

A story printed in a 1966 Yankee magazine titled, ‘The day the weather bureau was right’ offered Davidson some insight into what the passengers aboard the doomed ship would have experienced.

For more than 12 hours they were tossed around by towering waves, pummeled with torrential snow and in constant danger of crashing into the rocky coastline.

“People in Gloucester, down the New England coast, heard that night the distinct whistle of the steamer,” said Davidson.

“This man was familiar with the whistle of the Portland steamer and he knew it was it, and it was repeated blowing fast so he knew there was trouble.”

Eventually the ship succumbed to the elements, sending all hands to a watery grave off of Cape Ann.

Davidson said his grandmother learned of the tragedy more than a week later when a special dispatch arrived at the Truro Daily News from the Westchester Station on Dec. 5, 1898.

It read: “The loss of the S.S. Portland has caused sad gloom to fall over this place.”

In the days following the storm a small amount of debris from the wreck washed ashore, included 36 bodies, but the officer from Debert was not among them.

Years later, the ill-fated ship was discovered in 1945 by divers lying 460-feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean near Gloucester, Mass.

“They actually found the ship but it was in deep water,” said Davidson. “They couldn’t go below deck. It was too dangerous to go down and see if there were any bodies there.”

The site was visited again in the late 1980s and has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The sailor’s portrait is proudly displayed on his grandson’s wall. Davidson said every year when the anniversary rolls around he feels sentimental, wondering about the grandfather he never knew.



Organizations: New England Shipbuilding Co., Yankee magazine, Truro Daily News Westchester Station National Register of Historic Places

Geographic location: New England, Debert, Portland Boston Portland, Maine United States Nova Scotia Gloucester Atlantic Ocean Gloucester, Mass.

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