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The following excerpt is taken from the 1899 Annual Report of the Life Saving Service

The Great Storm of November, 1898.

Wrecks of the Columbia, Abel E. Babcock, Barge No. 4, Calvin F. Baker, Mertis H. Perry, Jordan L. Mott, Lester A. Lewis, Albert L. Butler, Amelia G. Ireland, and Clara Leavitt.

            The ten wrecks, the details of which follow, occurred in the now memorable cyclonic tempest which struck the New England Coast, especially the south shore of Massachusetts Bay, in the evening of Saturday, November 26, 1898, and raged with almost unprecedented violence for twenty-four hours, and with gradually abating force for twelve hours longer – two nights and one day.

            Probably this storm will longest be remembered and generally designated as that which destroyed the steamer Portland with all of her crew and passengers, estimated as numbering between one hundred and fifty and two hundred people.  No such appalling calamity has occurred anywhere near by the coasts of the United States, or on the shore, for almost half a century, and it is doubtful whether there has been within the same period a coast storm of such Titanic Power.


When the steamer Portland steamed away from her pier in Boston Harbor, about 7 o’clock p.m., scores of sailing vessels between Gay Head and Cape Ann were hunting for harbors of refuge.  Forty took shelter in Vineyard Haven (Holmes Holl), of which number more than half suffered injury.  Many found anchorage in Provincetown and Gloucester, while others were crowding every stitch they could bear to reach port.  Those already there passed additional stout lines to the dock or dropped another trustworthy anchor.

            Where the apparently ill-fated steamer finally gave out and foundered has never been conclusively determined [later determined to be 20 NM northwest of Provincetown], but sufficient facts have been gleaned to make it clear that she went down at sea.  Therefore her destruction did not lie within the scope of the Life-Saving Service, and is referred to simply as one of the most impressive evidences of the overwhelming destructiveness of the tempest.

            That stormy weather was threatening during the afternoon ad early evening of November 26 is not within dispute, for besides the warning of the Weather Bureau, the conditions were unmistakably proven by the flight of many vessels into port.  “There were at sunset marked indications of approaching bad weather in this vicinity,” says Lieutenant Ross, assistant inspector of life-saving stations, an officer of large experience, who was in Boston at that time.  But that the storm which followed far exceeded the apprehensions, both of the most timed and the most intelligent, is equally clear.

            Snow began falling early, and the wind increased until by 10 o’clock, says Keeper Joshua James of the Point Allerton Station, only nine or ten miles from Boston, “it was blowing a gale from the northeast with sleet and snow so thick that we could not see one hundred yards at most.  At midnight it was a hurricane.”  The captain of a large steel trans-Atlantic steamship, which was stranded by the storm much nearer the city, states that he could scarcely see across the ship.  The expanding force of the cyclone swept in with the rising tide, causing the waters to flood the beaches far beyond well defined storm limits, and to tear through the sand ridges and submerge the marshes for miles around.  In the track of this overpowering deluge were havoc and destruction.  It washed away large portions of the bank or sea wall in the rear of the beaches, and scooped out the latter in many places to a depth of five feet.  Bulkheads constructed to protect roadways near the shore were battered down by the resistless shocks of the waves, and the roads were buried and obliterated beneath piles and winrows of sand and stones.  Houses were blown from their foundations, and in many instances hopelessly shattered, in some wholly destroyed.

            At Scituate Point, the whole village, numbering upward of one hundred dwellings, was almost ruined, while many of the inhabitants narrowly escaped with their lives.  In one instance a woman was drowned while her husband was trying to assist her to escape from their dwelling.  The boathouse of the Massachusetts Humane Society near Scituate Light was swept to the south side of the harbor, the boat going one way and the boat carriage another.  The wind at this time is said to have been “something terrific – its intensity could not be described, nor could words convey an approximate idea of its terrifying effects.”

            In the town of Hull, which includes Nantasket Beach, damage was inflicted estimated at upward of two hundred thousand dollars.  There was hardly a building, says one witness, that escaped some injury.  The railroad sea wall, constructed of heavy granite stones, was ruined for a mile, and the beaches were lowered two or three feet in some places, and narrowed ten or fifteen feet.  On Monday, November 28, when the storm had spent its fury, the shores and surroundings were a stretch of wreck and ruin.

            Against such an indescribable pandemonium of wind and sea as the foregoing fragmentary review suggests, few craft, steam or sail, could successfully contend on a lee shore, and the deplorable consequence was that the coast, rocks, and islands from Gay Head to Cape Ann were strewn with wrecked or disabled vessels, while an uncertain but considerable number foundered not far away at sea.  Of the latter class, of course, none are included in this part of the report, and of the former, only those from which there was loss of life.

The following entries concerning the November storm are from the “Service of Crews” portion of the 1899 Annual Report of the Life-Saving Service.

Nov, 27 – American Schooner Carrie L. Payson, Chatham Life-Saving Station – “Stranded during the hurricane 1 mile north of the station.  Master ran out anchors enough so that he thought she would be secure, but on December 16 he requested the keeper of the station to help him move the vessel higher up on the beach so that repairs might be made.  Accordingly, on the following day the keeper and crew went to the vessel and bailed her out as well as they could, and then, after putting seaweed under her bilges, they hauled her well up and secured her. (see letter of acknowledgment below.)

    Dennisport, Massachusetts, December 15, 1898

    Dear Sir: During the blizzard of November 27, my vessel, the Schooner Carrie Payson, dragged ashore at Chatham and was in great danger of breaking up.  Through the efforts of Captain Eldridge and crew, of station 13 (Chatham), who came to my assistance, the vessel was placed in a position of safety.  The vessel was valued at eight hundred dollars.

    Two much can not be spoken in praise of these men, who work so untiringly in the interest of saving life and property.

    Respectfully, Daniel H. Nickerson, Master of Schooner Carrie Payson

Nov, 28 – Nauset, MA.  Between this date and December 1st, the crew of this station recovered the bodies of five persons, probably all from the wrecked steamer Portland.  The bodies were given in charge of the proper authorities.

Nov, 28 – Orleans, Ma. Between this date and December 1st, the crew of this station recovered eight bodies washed up on the beach.  They were taken charge of by the proper authorities.

Nov, 29 – Old Harbor, MA. Bodies of five people who perished in the great storm were washed up on the beach between this date and Dec 1st.  Surfmen took charge of them until removed by the proper local authorities.

Nov 30 – Chatham, MA.  The body of a man was found on the beach near the station.  Keeper had it brought to the station and notified the proper authorities.

Dec 4 – Orleans, MA.  Keeper received a telephone message from north watchhouse [sic], stating that a body had been found on the beach.  He drove to the place, gathered up the remains, carried them to the undertaker’s at Orleans, and then notified coroner.  The body was that of a man about 60 years of age, bald, with full gray beard, and the second finger on the left hand gone at the first joint.

Dec 5 – Orleans, MA.  Surfman on north patrol discovered a body in the surf at 11 p.m.  Keeper took three Surfmen and a team to the spot, recovered the body, conveyed it to the station and notified the coroner, who took charge of it.  The body was that of a woman of about 30 years, light complexion, dark-brown hair, weight 140 pounds, height 5 feet 3 inches, and with a ring containing three pearls on the third finger of the left hand.

Dec 5 – Old Harbor, MA.  Station lookout found a man’s body on the beach near the station.  Surfmen took it to North Chatham in a dory and delivered it to the coroner.

Dec 5 – Monomoy, MA.  The evening patrol found the body of a man on the beach ½ mile NE from station.  It was taken to station and next morning transported to the Chatham Station, where it was delivered to the medical examiner.

Dec 6 – Nauset, MA.   A Surfman discovered the body of a man in the surf near station.  Station crew recovered it, carried it to station on a blanket, and informed undertaker, who came and took charge of it, the medical examiner being out of town.

Dec 6 – Orleans, MA.  Found the body of a young woman on the beach 1/3 mile S. of station.  Took it to station and notified the coroner, who sent an undertaker to whom the body was delivered.  The body was identified as that of Mrs. Walter L. Bemis, of Auburn, Maine.

Dec 6 – Old Harbor, MA.  Two Surfmen picked up the body of a colored man on the beach two miles N. of station.  It was delivered to the proper authorities. 

Dec 6 – Chatham, MA.  The bodies of two men and one woman were found by the life-saving beach patrol.  They were taken to station by a team, where they were delivered to the coroner.  All the bodies found in this locality were from the American steamer Portland, which was lost at sea in the severe storm of November 27, 1898.

Dec 7 – Chatham, MA.  About midnight the station patrol found the body of a man a short distance N. of station.  It was taken to station, and in the morning carried to Chatham, where by order of the coroner it was delivered to an undertaker.

Dec 11 – Chatham, MA.  The body of a man was found on the beach by a Surfman and was taken to station with team.  It was turned over to an undertaker upon receipt of an order to that effect from the coroner.

All told Chatham area Life Saving Stations recovered 31 bodies, all presumably from the American Schooner Portland between November 27th and December 11th.

Last Modified 1/12/2016