Diving in the City of Portland – Knox County VillageSoup
If passenger steamer City of Portland met on May 8, 1884 on Northwest Ledge just outside Owls Head in Fisherman Island Passage, there was no loss of life. The ship was on an east-northeast course at 12 knots per hour when it crashed into the ledge around 3:30 in the morning due to a misplaced buoy.
About two miles from the mainland, the steamer slowly settled in the water. Under Captain David Larcom, her 130 passengers and crew were all safely landed. The Maine Maritime Museum in Bath has Larcom’s diary as well as freight bills and accounting records for the steamer.
Launched in 1873, the side paddle steamer was 240 feet long and retreated 4.4 feet. A source said it was originally named New England. The 1,026-ton ship owned by the International Steamship Company of Boston carried passengers and cargo between Boston and St. John, New Brunswick, including stops along the Maine coast.
Numerous rescue ships arrived on site to provide help. A boat loaded with women nearly capsized when a panicked male passenger jumped in from the steamer. A horse jumped overboard and swam around the ship, then tried to climb back on board. Two men in a dory grabbed his holster and rowed the animal two miles to shore. The horse was saved.
When the steamer settled on the Northwest Ledge, easily visible from Crescent Beach, sea water reached the stoves and steam was blown off. The turn of the tide and the increasing westerly winds began to forgive the disadvantage of City of Portland. Larcom realized that soon little of the ship would be afloat. It eventually sank into 25 feet of water, a total loss.
Over the years pieces and pieces of it have been broken, scattered or salvaged. A debris field formed when tides and currents attacked the crumbling passenger steamer.
Years later, members of a local diving club called Mid-Coast Maine Aqua-Nuts were interested in visiting the site. A member had already dived there and recovered some items from the rubble field.
Her first visit there was on a spectacular summer day. The diver who was familiar with the site took the three of us in his boat and all four went down the anchor line to see what we could see. I was absolutely thrilled, although the visibility was not so good that day and we had to struggle with a decent current.
Another challenge we encountered is that Northwestern Ledge, or at least the part we dived on that first attempt, is covered in thick marine vegetation. Much of it had to be swept aside to see if there was any historical material underneath. Quite intense work which in turn will burn your air faster. Even so, we methodically worked along one side of the ledge at a depth of about 9 meters. When we made our 15 foot safety stop to vent any accumulated nitrogen from our blood, we cleared it up in the water column. While the safety stop wasn’t a problem, it did allow us to be carried further away from the boat by the current than we wanted, which required a longer than planned surface swim.
At the next attempt we only dived in pairs and approached the targeted search area with a different game plan. My dive buddy was a local lobster fisherman and he had gone out the day before and set some of his traps in the area that we wanted to search.
On the day of diving we tied to one of his buoys. It was another brilliant day away from Owls Head in Penobscot Bay. While his wife and children watched, we splashed around and gathered at the bow of his boat to descend its line to the edge of the Northwestern Ledge.
This area turned out to be less overgrown; it had large patches of sandy soil that made the search a lot easier. There was very little surge or undulation; In fact, the weather and water conditions were fantastic. The water temperature at depth was a mild 57 degrees F. It was pretty much absolute low tide, so we were in about 25 feet of sea water; I registered my deepest depth at 29 feet. We methodically worked our way up the ledge and spent over an hour under the water.
At one point I looked up at a point of the ledge that almost reached the surface. It couldn’t have been too far under the waves, and I could imagine why City of Portland meets this ledge and opens its interior to the sea water.
On this second dive, we came up with some material that most likely had to do with it City of Portland, including ceramic shards, a piece of iron pipe and many pieces of copper jacket that had lined the bottom of the steamer.
Probably the best find was a broken-off glass bottle from 1876. We had an absolutely great time, one of the best dives of the season!
We discovered that some of the debris fields appeared to be more open, with strips of sand and occasional marine vegetation, while other areas around the ledge were thickly covered with large kelp leaves.
Twenty years after its wreck, a later passenger steamer City of Rockland hit the same ledge and practically sat down on it City of Portland. When the diver with DW Brooks helmet went down to inspect City of RocklandOn the starboard side of the ship, he noticed that he was standing on the wreckage of the former steamer. He reportedly found a key store for the cabin City of Portland, as well as a shaving cup made of porcelain.
Sometimes this wreck is mistaken for the more tragic loss of the passenger steamer Portlandwho went down with all hands off Cape Ann in the Great Gale of 1898. This ship was a side wheel passenger steamer. More on that later!
Another interesting delicacy City of Portland Wreck is the story of the treasure on Monroe Island. Landed there first, some survivors are said to have buried their gold and silver coins there for safekeeping in order to find them again later. So a shipwreck, a great dive site AND a treasure ?! I like to think of the treasure of City of Portland is his entry into Maine’s maritime history.
My visits to City of Portland always seem to end up going back to Northport and humming the Willie Nelson version of Arlo Guthrie’s song “City of New Orleans”.
“Good morning Maine, how are you?
Say don’t you know me I am your native son
I am the ship they call City of Portland
And I’m 9 meters deep in the canal when the day is over … “
Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is the author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.
O ‘don’t cry for me!