New England history
By Bina Venkataraman
Captain Hollis Blanchard was at the helm of the steamship Portland when it went down off the coast of Massachusetts in November 1898. Nearly 200 perished.
In the cold, black waters 460 feet below the ocean's surface, the divers could not see their hands. They switched on their lamps, throwing light on one of the worst shipwrecks in New England history.
Clad head-to-toe in insulated dry suits, five Massachusetts men recently became the first divers to reach the Portland, a luxury passenger ship that was thrashed by hurricane-force winds and sank off the coast of Cape Ann in one of the 19th century's deadliest storms.
Although the upper decks had been ripped off, perhaps as waves pummeled the paddle wheel ship broadside, the divers found portholes with the glass intact, half-filled medicine bottles from an apothecary in Maine, and stacks of delicate china plates, many of which survived without a scratch.
"It's like somebody set the table, and just left it for 120 years," said Dave Faye, one of the divers and a lawyer at a Cambridge law firm. "It was very spooky.