A dogged pursuit of the facts

And The Sea Shall Have Them All
By Art Milmore, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 2017, 240 pp., $20, $9.99 Kindle Edition.

Reviewed by Sandy Marsters
For Points East

By any measure, the steamer Portland, built in Bath, Maine, and launched in 1889, was a lovely, elegant ship. Were she to steam into the harbor at Portland, Maine, today she would be a stunner. Low and sleek, her jaunty sheer is carried throughout her three decks, accentuated by a bold two-tone 280-foot hull that ends in a graceful round stern with a 30-foot overhang. Her two short masts, one just aft the small, rounded pilothouse, are raked slightly, and the side-by-side black smokestacks give away her steamer heritage. On each side, a large arched housing identifies her as a paddlewheeler. Aft of those wheels, four lifeboats hang from davits, two per side.

She doesn’t look like that today where she rests on the bottom of Massachusetts Bay about 20 miles off shore, her final resting place after sinking during a “perfect storm” on Nov. 6, 1898, with 192 souls aboard. All were lost, and most bodies were never recovered. A sonar image from 2002 shows the Portland sitting on the bottom in several hundred feet of water, her deck structures apparently swept away, but otherwise remarkably intact after 100 years on the ocean floor. Her bow points toward Cape Cod.

The Portland wasn’t the only ship lost during that 36-hour storm, which sank 150 ships and killed 450 crew and passengers. But she was the most famous and commanded the most attention, which in turn spawned a number of rumors and misassumptions regarding her fate.

In his book, “And The Sea Shall Have Them All,” author and historian Art Milmore, building on earlier research by maritime historian Edward Rowe Snow, attempts to sort through the lingering mysteries and scrub away the untruths surrounding the sinking of the Portland. Together, Snow and Milmore bring more than 70 years of research to the project, their doggedness driven by a respect for the victims and for historical accuracy.

This is not a sea story in the tradition of Joseph Conrad or Farley Mowat. It doesn’t have the dramatic arc of Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm.” That was not Milmore’s objective, and the organization of the book, which can at times seem scattered, doesn’t lend itself to narrative.

Rather, Milmore attempts to tell us exactly what happened in a way that nobody was able to do in the 100 years following the sinking, examining the evidence, speaking to experts, and even visiting the site of the sinking on one of the research vessels.

Like Snow, he wanted to know how it was that Portland captain Hollis Blanchard, relatively new to the job, lost his ship. No blame is assigned, though the judgment of Blanchard to leave Boston for Portland in the first place could be questioned. In the end, the seas off New England on that November day were no place for any ship to be – perhaps especially a side-wheel steamship. The miracle is that she survived as long as she did.

Co-founder of Points East, along with Bernie Wideman, Sandy Marsters is also the magazine’s former editor.

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