Why did Captain Hollis Blanchard Sail?

On Saturday November 26th, 1898 the Weather Bureau issued the following warning: “Heavy snow indicated for New York and New England tonight. Notify railroad and transportation interests.” A storm was on the way. Then why did Hollis Blanchard, Captain of the SS Portland, risk the lives of his crew and passengers when he sailed promptly at 7 p.m. that evening? Who was this man Hollis Blanchard? What information did he have about the weather the night he ordered the Portland’s lines cast off at India Wharf in Boston and sailed in history? What other probable factors did Blanchard consider?

Captain Hollis Blanchard lived in Westbrook, Maine with his family. He was the father of three children; two sons and a nineteen year old daughter. Blanchard’s father, grandfather, uncles, and brothers were all ship captains. As a young man Blanchard learned his trade in the merchant marine. He began his career as a steamboat man in the mid 1880s and he had served as the pilot, also known as a navigator, on both the Portland and her sister ship Bay State. Blanchard was in his mid fifties at the time of the Portland Gale and although he had been in the employment of the Portland Steam Packet Company for twelve years he had only recently been promoted to the position of Captain, having served as a pilot for most of his career with the company. He was promoted to Captain following the death of the Portland’s previous skipper, Captain William Snowman.

The main concern for the Captain during the afternoon of November 26th, 1898, was the weather. Captain Blanchard typically consulted the Weather Bureau office in Boston before he sailed to get the most up to date weather report. He spoke with meteorologist John W. Smith at the Weather Bureau office and examined the latest weather maps and forecasts. Blanchard learned that a storm was headed towards the Eastern Seaboard from the Great Lakes region. It was this development that had prompted the Weather Bureau to release their warning about heavy snow for the region. Evidently there was going to be a blow. [Link to Herald Weather map form Nov. 26th 1898]

Another important contributing factor to the disaster of the SS Portland was the ship herself. Hollis Blanchard had to consider that the Portland was a side-wheel steamer. Her design was more appropriate for sailing up rivers then for open ocean voyages. Writing for Scribner’s Magazine in November of 1899 Sylvester Baxter asserted:

When the coastwise packet steamboat Portland was reported missing it was hoped that she might be heard from safe in the open sea, but knowing ones felt that a steamer of her type had little chance for safety in that storm, for she was of the same general pattern as the Long Island Sound boats—a sidewheeler, with a deckhouse in three tiers. While she was staunch enough for ordinary bad weather, only a propeller of the ocean-going type…could be suitable to a route like that between Boston and Portland, all the way through the open sea.

Side-wheel captains were known to be a cautious group in general. These captains knew that their ships were in jeopardy in any seas aside from a flat calm because these vessels were more like riverboats than ocean going steamships. The design of these coastal steamers allowed them to connect Boston with Maine’s river ports. However, it also made them unseaworthy. The Portland, for example, measured only ten feet, eight inches below the water-line. Yet her superstructure was tall and, being built of wood rather then iron or steel, heavy. This means that the Portland was prone to roll over in rough weather and high seas. Furthermore the shape of her hull did not have a sharp bow to cut through the water like many ocean going vessels of the period. Even worse, the wooden paddles could easily be smashed by a breaking sea hitting the ship broadside. There are stories on record of ship’s crews shifting the cargo of paddle-wheel steamers during a storm so that the paddle on the windward side of the ship would be lifted out of the water. This protected the paddle from rough seas but also meant that the ship would only have the use of one of its paddles. These ships were recognized as being so unseaworthy that after the tragedy of the Portland’s sinking she was replaced by the new Governor Dingley, built in 1899, a more seaworthy screw propeller ship.

Captain Alexander Dennison, the skipper of the Portland’s sister ship, the Bay State, was docked in Portland on the afternoon of November 27th, 1898. He was known as the “kid-pilot” because of his relatively young age. He, like Blanchard, had only recently been promoted to the position of Captain. Dennison had been tapped to fill the shoes of Captain Charles Deering who had passed away Thanksgiving night. The Portland Steam Packet Company had also recently lost its general manager, John B. Coyle Jr. who passed away on November 7th. He had been replaced by former Boston agent John F. Liscomb. These recent deaths meant that Blanchard, Dennison, and Liscomb had all been recently promoted to their positions.

At around 5:30 on the evening of the 26th Liscomb called the company's Boston office from Portland. He requested to speak with Captain Blanchard but Blanchard was not at the office at that time. Liscomb told the company's Boston agent, C.F. Willaims, that Blanchard should wait until 9 p.m. to set sail and that if the weather continued to worsen Blanchard should not sail at all.

Shortly afterwards Blanchard and Williams called the Portland office where Dennison had decided to not take the Bay State to sea. According to the book Four Short Blasts:

The two exchanged remarks about the wisdom of sailing, based on the special weather advisory issued that forenoon. According to the Portland Daily Advertiser, “Captain Dennison said it looked black, (in Portland) and he should wait until 8 or 9 o’clock.” Blanchard, on the other hand, told Dennison he “wanted to spend Sunday in Portland.”

E.R. Snow, a New England historian, asserts that during this conversation Blanchard told Dennison that he would sail on schedule at 7 p.m., reasoning that the storm, given the direction it was moving, would not hit Portland, Maine until after the steamer had reached her destination and docked. Some sources have suggested that Blanchard was jealous of Captain Dennison who had been given the Captaincy of the newer Bay State despite his young age. Was Captain Blanchard trying to show his superior skills as a sailor and embarrass Dennison by sailing when Dennison would not?

A letter in the possession of the Portland Harbor Museum written by C.F. Williams to general manager Liscomb states:

I told George Bartman, the watchman, to watch the ring of the telephone sure about nine o’clock for you had sent word for Capt. Blanchard to wait till 9 for weather report, but Capt. Blanchard would not for he was bound to go on time and that you would be wild to hear he had not waited. George Barton will swear I told him that and it only goes to show that I said to Capt. Blanchard all that a man could say to follow out your request for him to wait.

The tone of this letter indicates that Williams is a man trying to absolve himself of any blame in the tragedy of the SS Portland. In short, he is telling his boss, “I told Captain Blanchard to wait for instructions but Blanchard ignored me.”

Another motive that has been proposed as to why Captain Blanchard sailed on the evening of November 26th is that there was a party being thrown the next day in Portland in honor of Blanchard’s daughter. A woman who boarded the Portland that evening, but who changed her mind about sailing as the weather worsened, claimed that Blanchard had told her that he had bought a watch for his daughter as a gift and that he was looking forward to attending the party. Mrs. Carrie Courtney, quoted in a 1952 newspaper article, claims that she intended to sail on the Portland but changed her mind that night. Before she disembarked she talked with Captain Blanchard. Mrs. Courtney asserts that she was standing with the Captain when he received orders to not sail that evening. “He was more than a little put out for he was giving his daughter a coming out party the first of the week, and showed me the beautiful watch he had for her. The boat was pitching badly then.” A Portland newspaper article printed in 1918, close to the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy, claimed that Captain Blanchard wished to be home in Portland on Sunday so he could attend a “family reunion.”

Blanchard was also reported to have had a conversation with Rockland, Maine ship’s Captain C.H. Leighton close to 6 p.m. Leighton later shared his conversation with Blanchard with the Portland Press:

He knew Capt. Blanchard and spoke with him Saturday night at 6 o’clock, asking “are you going to sail on a night such as this?” “I think I shall, Captain Leighton,” Blanchard replied. Leighton said, “I do not think it is a fit night to leave port.” Blanchard answered, “I do not know about that, we may have a good chance."

Around 6 p.m. Blanchard received a telegram containing the weather report from New York. The telegram stated that it was snowing in New York but that the wind direction had shifted to the North-West. This telegram may have led Captain Blanchard to believe that the most severe portion of the storm had passed and that the storm was moving out to sea. Captain Blanchard may also have been under the impression that he could outrun the storm. Since he was headed North-East, he would be headed away from the weather unlike the Bay State which would have been heading into the storm on her trip from Portland to Boston. Furthermore, the weather in Boston was still relatively good. As Blanchard ordered the Portland’s lines cast off promptly at 7 p.m. the sky was overcast but there was no snow and only mild wind.

No one knows what exactly happened that night and the next day aboard the Portland. She was spotted throughout the night and into the next morning. Sunday evening the bodies of the passengers and crew of the Portland and wreckage from the ship began to wash onto the beaches of Cape Cod. Within a couple of days the world knew that she had sunk somewhere off of Cape Cod and that there were no survivors. Almost immediately the major regional newspapers placed the blame on Captain Hollis Blanchard.

Blanchard was defended, however, by many of his fellow ship’s Captains in the New England region. At least twelve of Blanchard’s contemporary Sea Captains testified that they too would have set sail, given the information available at the time the Portland sailed. Yet those who knew Blanchard also asserted that he was an aggressive Captain who was compelled to keep to schedules. In an interview in the Portland based Daily Eastern Argus Captain John W. Craig, a side-wheeler Captain who had frequently sailed with Blanchard, offered the following assessment of Blanchard:

A cooler man I never knew and I doubt if there was his superior on any boat that plies the Maine coast. He was honest, faithful, and fearless. I have never seen in all my seafaring experience a man who could run a boat better in a storm or calm. But when he was pilot with me on the Tremont he never wanted to admit that the weather was bad. He couldn’t seem to see bad weather, and didn’t like to talk about it. Sometimes I would ask him if he did not think that it was blowing up a storm, or if the prospect was not rather dubious, but he would seldom admit it.

This assertion that Captain Blanchard was an aggressive Captain, known as “drivers” for the way they drove their ships despite inclement weather, conflicts with other statements made by individuals who knew him professionally. Blanchard had apparently confided in Boston weather forecaster E.B. Rideout that he had been disciplined by his superiors for being too cautious in light of the increasing competition from the railroads that also transported passengers and freight from Boston to Portland.

Grace Blanchard, the Captain’s granddaughter, maintained that Captain Blanchard had been ordered by his superiors at the Portland Steam Packet Company to sail on the evening November 26th 1898. This story was related to her by her father, Captain Blanchard’s son, who lived in Boston at the time of the Portland tragedy and who spoke with the Captain that afternoon. Miss Blanchard asserted that when the Captain's son inquired if it was necessary to sail that evening the Captain replied, “I have my orders to sail, and I am going!”

However, Blanchard’s employer, general manager Liscomb, placed responsibility for the disaster on the deceased Captain. Liscomb issued the following statement:

It was clearly a case of bad judgment and disobedience of orders on the part of Capt. Blanchard…Our motto has always been to err on the safe side and, in fact, I have heard the people have sometimes referred to us as the “Old Granny” line, because we would not sail in threatening weather. We never allow a boat to go out in a gale or a snow storm and if they get caught after they are getting out to sea they are instructed to return… He [Captain Blanchard] was evidently convinced that the approaching storm was not going to be very severe, perhaps founding that belief on the predication which I believe was in Saturday’s Government report that the wind on Sunday would be northwest.

Many mariners and Sea Captains from New England disagreed with Liscomb’s assessment however. They felt that Blanchard, a dead man, was being unjustly blamed for the sinking of his ship.

John Rousmaniere, the author of After The Storm, has written the best assessment of the different factors that contributed to the Portland disaster. One factor that we have been discussing is the judgment of Captain Blanchard. Blanchard was known as an “aggressive” Captain, prone to sail in inclement weather to keep the ship’s schedule. Rousmaniere asserts that such an aggressive Captain would necessarily have to be balanced by the cautiousness of his superiors. However, Blanchard’s superiors at this time, Liscomb and Williams, were new to their jobs. Rousmaniere asserts, “On the evening of November 26, 1898—probably the most important moment in its history—the Portland Steamship Company was a mess…First off, nobody involved with the decision—the lines general manager, its local agent, Blanchard himself, and Captain Dennison of the Bay State—had been in his job longer then three weeks.” Furthermore, the company was, on that very day, grappling with the death of senior Captain Charles Deering. Deering’s funeral happened to be scheduled for Sunday November 27th. This meant that general manager Liscomb would be aboard a train bound for Boston when Blanchard made his final decision to sail. It also would mean that Blanchard would sail without his first mate or pilot who had both elected to stay in Boston to attend Deering’s funeral the following day.

So why did Captain Blanchard set sail on the evening of November 27th, 1898? Why did he risk the lives of his crew and passengers? Over one hundred years later we can only guess what factors the man considered as he stood on the deck of the SS Portland and cautiously eyed the sky over Boston Harbor. Did he sail so he could attend a party for his daughter? Did he sail to show up the Bay State's Captain? Did he think he could outrun the coming storm or that the worst of the storm had passed? Did Captain Blanchard receive orders from the Portland Steamship Company to wait in port or did he receive orders to sail? The only man who knows for sure is Captain Blanchard himself...