This sailor’s body was never found after the ‘Portland Gale’

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Griffin Reed
Died 1898 at age 61

Greetings from Portland. Sweater weather is here. Every day this month I’m telling a story that bridges the gap between this world, and the next. I’m resurrecting the memory of Portlanders who’ve crossed over to the other side by posting one video each day, relating the tale of one, interesting “permanent Portlander.”

Capt. Hollis Blanchard was in command of the sidewheel steamer Portland for less than a month when he took her out of Boston Harbor at 7 p.m. on Nov. 26, 1898. Blanchard was convinced he could outrun an oncoming storm and make it back to Portland in the morning.

He was wrong.

Aboard Blanchard’s 219-foot luxury boat were about 120 passengers. Also aboard were 60 crew members, including Griffin S. Reed of Portland. Reed was standing the forward cabin watch that night. He earned $22 a month.

The 61-year-old African American man was born in Portland and lived here with his wife, Mary, and son, Charles. Reed was a member of the Abyssinian Church and he’d worked on ships his whole life.

The passenger steamer Portland was one of the premier side-wheelers of the Eastern Steamship Company. In 2002, she was found upright and intact in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. This photo is item no. 12138 at the Maine Memory Network.

The passenger steamer Portland was one of the premier side-wheelers of the Eastern Steamship Company. In 2002, she was found upright and intact in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. This photo is item no. 12138 at the Maine Memory Network.

That night, as Reed stood watch, blinding snow, hurricane-force winds and 40-foot seas blew up as two storms — one from the south and one from the west — joined forces in ravaging New England.

At dawn, four short steam whistle blasts were heard at a life saving station on Cape Cod, signaling a ship in distress. But no ship could be seen in the heavy weather.

The Portland must have gone down in the furious sea just a few hours later. When the bodies started washing ashore, late that night, all their watches were stopped at just after nine o’clock.

There were no survivors.

 Griffin Reed was a night watchman aboard the steamship Portland when it disappeared in a November gale in 1898. His body was never recovered. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Griffin Reed was a night watchman aboard the steamship Portland when it disappeared in a November gale in 1898. His body was never recovered. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Griffin Reed’s body was never found. His stone in Evergreen Cemetery is just a cenotaph, a memorial. All told, something like 400 New Englanders died in the storm, with the loss of 150 vessels, including the Portland and its 190 souls.

Since then, the storm has simply been called “The Portland Gale.”

Today’s story is brought to you, in part by the indefatigable volunteers at Friends of Evergreen Cemetery and “The Final Voyage of the Portland” By Walter V. Hickey in the Winter 2006 issue of Prologue Magazine.

In 2002, using high-tech equipment, searchers finally located the wreck of the Portland. It sits in 500 feet of water in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Reed-1

Griffin Reed’s body was never recovered from the sea after the Portland sank. This marker in Evergreen Cemetery is a cenotaph for him, and a tombstone for his wife, who is actually buried there. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

 

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Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.