November 28: The Portland Gale Leaves Connecticut Buried

 

Today in 1898, after two relentless days of wind and snow,  a massive storm that became known as The Portland Gale finally moved off the Connecticut shoreline, but not before bringing the state to a stand-still. The storm had formed on November 26th, when two large storms intersected over New York state, then marched across New England and along the eastern seaboard, paralyzing land transportation and wrecking over a hundred ships.  

The S.S. Portland, a luxury coastal steamship  which gave the storm its name, was the worst of the storm’s casualties. Crowded with post-Thanksgiving passengers heading for Portland from Boston, all 193 persons aboard were lost when the vessel sank off Cape Cod. Two of the fatalities, Charles Tinkham of Hartford and Frederick Munn of Suffield, were Connecticans. Ironically, Munn was going to Portland attend a funeral. In total, the storm left nearly 400 New Englanders dead. 

portland-steamer-large
The SS Portland, a luxury coastal steamship which lost all 193 passengers and crew when it sank off Cape Cod, gave The Portland Gale its name.

While the Gale killed relatively few Connecticans, it most severely tested the state’s transportation systems.  Heavy snow fell nonstop for two days, producing records in New Haven and New London that stand to this day.  Although some locations recovered relatively quickly, other areas were  paralyzed, with roads and railway lines completely blocked and trolley traffic suspended. The state’s trolley companies were the worse hit by the high drifts. New Britain’s Central Railway & Electric Company called the gale “the most severe storm” the company had ever had to deal with.  

Because both the state and many individual transportation companies lacked the capacity to clear the transportation routes, thousands of individuals were paid to assist in the snow removal. Mary Noyes, a resident of Stonington recorded the travel difficulties in her diary.  “Nov. 28 -Clear this morning but such high banks. Mr. Lord began to clear the roads but did not get but a little way in all day.”  Five days later, on December 3rd, the roads were still barely passable. Noyes wrote, “I can’t say but that I have taken one wild ride. There was hardly a place on the road where a team (of horses) could pass one another.  The snow banks were for a long distance a foot above the wagon wheel.  I was obliged to go through the lots (pastures, not the roads) much of the way.”

Digging out a train and tracks in Norwalk after the Blizzard of 1888. Similar efforts were launched statewide in the wake of The Portland Gale. (Connecticut Historical Society)

All portions of the state were  hard-hit by the storm.  Some towns such as Torrington and Winsted were  completely isolated for days. Ultimately, the transportation paralysis produced by The Portland Gale became a stimulus helping the state improve transportation planning and preparation for future storms.

Researched and Written by Luke Villani.

Further Reading:

The Portland Gale of 1898,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Walter V. Hickey, “The Final Voyage of the Portland,”  National Archives and Records Administration

Jean B Evans, “Blizzard of 1898, The Portland Gale”