The tragic sinking of the SS Portland, a steamship that became a watery grave off Cape Cod for nearly 200 passengers and crew members 119 years ago, was commemorated Friday evening at the Maine Historical Society.

Members of the society and the Abyssinian Meeting House Restoration Project held a ceremony in the Brown Research Library, where they read the names of known passengers and crew members, and rang a maritime bell after each name, said Kate McBrien, the society’s chief curator.

The Rev. Jeffrey McIlwain leads a prayer Friday at a commemoration of the 119th anniversary of the loss of the SS Portland. Bob Greene, far right, read off the name of Francis Eben Heuston, a man who died on board the ship. Heuston was married to Greene’s great-grandmother. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Many passengers and crew members on the Portland were from Maine, including 19 members of the Abyssinian church, a black congregation whose 1828 meeting house on Newbury Street in Portland is being restored. The loss was so devastating to the congregation, its membership declined thereafter and the church closed in 1917.

In what is widely considered New England’s worst maritime disaster, the exact number of people lost is unknown because the only passenger list was aboard the ship.

It is believed that at least 194 people died when the side-paddle passenger steamship went down north of Cape Cod on Nov. 27, 1898. Despite warnings of a terrible storm, the ship was returning on its regular overnight run from Boston to its home port of Portland on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

One of the last luxury coastal steamers, the Portland was furnished with chandeliers, red velvet carpets and fine china. It ran head-on into what would become known as the “Portland Gale,” which combined one gale moving north up the East Coast and another coming east from the Great Lakes. Together, they produced a blizzard with 100 mph winds and 60-foot waves that pummeled the coast.

The Portland likely sank on Sunday morning, about 14 hours after leaving Boston. Some wreckage and about 40 bodies were recovered on the shore of Cape Cod. The wreck itself was found in 2002 by scientists using sonar and remote-controlled video cameras, and it was subsequently reached by divers at a depth of 460 feet.

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