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Wreck of the Portland found

By DEIRDRE WILSON

BOSTON -- The wreck of the Portland, a 280-foot sidewheel steamer that claimed more than 160 lives when it sank in a ferocious 1898 storm, has been found in Massachusetts Bay, a maritime explorer said Friday.

John Fish, co-director of Historical Maritime Group of New England, said his crew used sonar equipment this week to confirm they had found the ship in waters north of Cape Cod.

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'The ship is heavily deteriorated. There is nothing left of the upper part of the ship on the sonar record,' Fish said. 'The only thing that is left on the site is the hull and the machinery.'

The steamer, powered by a paddle wheel attached to its side, sank in stormy seas the morning of Nov. 27, 1898, as it carried between 160 and 180 Thanksgiving travelers from Boston to Portland, Maine. There were no survivors.

The storm, packing 100 mph winds and driving snow, was dubbed the Portland Gale of 1898 and was considered the worst to ever hit the New England coast.

Bodies of passengers and debris from the ship owned by the Portland Steam Packet Co. washed ashore on Cape Cod for several weeks.

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Fish, a resident of the Cape Cod town of Cataumet, co-founded the maritime historical group 15 years ago to search and record the sites of legendary shipwrecks in the Northeast.

He began looking for the wreck of the Portland in 1978, slowly mapping what local fishermen had told them were obstructions on the ocean floor. For help, he turned to Richard Limeburner, a research associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Limeburger used a computerized record of where and when debris from the Portland was found to pinpoint where the ship sank, based on winds, tides and currents.

Three watches found on bodies that washed ashore on the Cape had stopped at about 9 o'clock. Historians initially believed the watches had stopped at 9 p.m., meaning the ship had drifted southward and sunk very close to the Cape.

But Limeburner speculated -- correctly -- that the ship had sunk 12 hours earlier, at 9 a.m., and that led explorers to a site further north, closer to Boston.

'That was the answer to the problem,' he said. 'The stuff had been drifting in the water for 12 hours, not just a half an hour.'

The explorers declined to pinpoint where the wreck was found, out of fear it may be disturbed by others.

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Fish's crew plans to photograph the wreck with underwater cameras next month and hopes to later use an unmanned submersible vehicle with television cameras to film the remains.

'We want to be fairly careful with the site because it is a grave,' Fish said. 'An awful lot of people lost their lives there. Our real goal is to find out why and how it sank.'

Fish believes the ship did not collide with another vessel because there are no other shipwrecks in the area. There is speculation the vessel may have experienced an explosion.

After the accident, the paddle-wheel design was abandoned in the Northeast and ships made of steel with propellers came into use.

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