Pictured is a vintage photo of The City of Portland. From the collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

When passenger steamer City of Portland struck Northwest Ledge just off Owls Head in Fisherman Island passage May 8, 1884, there was no loss of life. The vessel was on an east-northeast course at 12 knots per hour when, because of an out of place buoy, it slammed into the ledge around 3:30 in the morning.

About two miles from the mainland, the steamer slowly settled in the water. Under Captain David Larcom, her 130 passengers and crew were all landed safely. Maine Maritime Museum in Bath has Larcom’s diary as well as freight bills and bookkeeping records about the steamer.

Launched in 1873, the side-wheel steamer was 240 feet long and drew 14 feet. One source said it was originally named New England. Owned by International Steamship Company of Boston, the 1,026-ton vessel carried passengers and freight between Boston and St. John, New Brunswick, including stops along the Maine coast.

Numerous rescue vessels arrived on the scene to render assistance. One boat, being loaded with women, almost capsized when a panicked male passenger jumped into it from the steamer. A horse jumped overboard and swam around the vessel, then tried to climb back aboard. Two men in a dory grabbed its halter and rowed the animal 2 miles to shore. The horse was saved.

As the steamer settled on Northwest Ledge, easily seen from Crescent Beach, seawater reached the furnaces and steam was blown off. The turning tide and strengthening westward winds began to warp the after part of City of Portland. Larcom realized there would soon be little of the vessel left above water. It eventually sank in 25 feet of water, a total loss.

Over the years, parts and pieces of it were broken apart, scattered or salvaged. A debris field developed as tides and currents attacked the disintegrating passenger steamer.

Years later, members of a local scuba club called the Mid-Coast Maine Aqua-Nuts were interested in visiting the site. One member had already dived there and recovered some items from the debris field.

The dive boat heads out to Fisherman Island passage and Northwestern Ledge off Owls Head. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

 

For the first dive attempt, four divers meet at the bow to descend to the wreck debris field. Photo by Charles H. Logerbom

 

Their first visit there was on a spectacular summer day. The diver familiar with the site took three of us out in his boat and all four descended the anchor line to see what we could see. I was totally stoked, although visibility that day was not all that good, and we struggled with a decent current.

The first descent was onto an area of thick kelp and vegetation, making search difficult

 

Another challenge we encountered is that Northwestern Ledge, or at least the part we dove on that first attempt, is covered with thick marine vegetation. You had to sweep a lot of it aside to see if there was any historic material beneath it. Fairly intense labor, which in turn burns up your air faster. Still, we worked methodically along one side of the ledge in about a 30-foot depth. When we made our 15-foot safety stop, to bleed off any built-up nitrogen from our blood, we did it free-style in the water column. While there was no problem with the safety stop, it did allow us to be carried by the current farther from the boat than we wanted, which necessitated a longer than planned-for surface swim.

For the next attempt, there were just two of us diving and we approached the targeted search area with a different game plan. My dive buddy was a local lobsterman and he had gone out the day prior and set some of his traps in the area we intended to search.

On dive day, we tied up to one of his buoys. It was another sparklingly beautiful day off Owls Head on Penobscot Bay. While his wife and children watched, we splashed and gathered at the bow of his boat to descend his trap line down to the edge of Northwestern Ledge.

On the second trip, divers descended onto a carefully placed lobster pot marking the edge of Northwestern Ledge. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

 

This area proved to be less overgrown; it had large sandy bottom patches that made searching much easier. There was very little surge or wave action; in fact, weather and water conditions were fantastic. Water temperature was a balmy 57° F at depth. It was pretty much absolute low tide, so we were in about 25 feet of seawater; I registered my deepest depth at 29 feet. We worked our way methodically along the ledge, spending over an hour submerged.

Visibility and water conditions were excellent, and it was possible to find artifacts from the City of Portland debris field.

At one point, I looked up at a spire of the ledge that almost reached the surface. It could not have been too far beneath the waves, and I could imagine the bottom of City of Portland hitting that projection, opening its insides to the seawater.

That second dive, we came up with quite a bit of material most likely associated with City of Portland, including ceramic sherds, an iron pipe piece, and plenty of copper sheathing pieces that had lined the steamer’s bottom.

Some items retrieved are associated with the City of Portland. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

 

Probably the best find was a glass bottle with the top broken off that was dated 1876. We had an absolutely great time, one of the best dives of the season!

This bottle from 1876 was retrieved from debris field. Photo by Micah Philbrook

 

We discovered that some of the debris field appears to be more open, with stretches of sand and occasional marine growth while other areas around the ledge were densely covered with large kelp leaves.

Twenty years after its wreck, a later passenger steamer City of Rockland struck the same ledge and settled practically atop City of Portland. When hard-hat diver D.W. Brooks went down to inspect City of Rockland’s starboard side damage, he realized he was standing on wreckage of the earlier steamer. He reportedly found a stateroom key bearing City of Portland, as well as a porcelain shaving mug.

Sometimes this wreck gets confused with the more tragic loss of the passenger steamer Portland, which went down with all hands, off Cape Ann in the Great Gale of 1898. That vessel was a side-wheel passenger steamer. More on that later!

One more interesting tidbit about this City of Portland wreck is the story of treasure on Monroe Island. First landed there, some survivors supposedly buried their gold and silver coins there for safe keeping, with the intention of later retrieving them. So, a shipwreck, a great dive site AND a treasure?! I like to think the treasure of City of Portland is its entry into the maritime history of Maine.

My visits to the City of Portland always seem to end with my driving back to Northport 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’m your native son
I’m the ship they call the City of Portland
And I’m 30 feet down in the channel when the day is done…”

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport.  He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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