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Letter casts light on New England's worst sea disaster

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine -- A newly discovered letter written by a steamship company agent sheds new light on a 105-year-old mystery surrounding New England's worst maritime disaster.

The aged, handwritten letter suggests that Captain Hollis Blanchard ignored an order to wait for a 9 p.m. weather report before sailing the Portland out of Boston Harbor on Nov. 25, 1898.

The ship succumbed to 100 mile per hour winds and 60-foot waves on its way to Portland, and all 192 passengers and crew died in the tragedy that has become known as New England's Titanic. Most of the passengers were Mainers returning to Portland after Thanksgiving.

For years, there has been speculation about Blanchard's actions that night. Did he guide the steamship into a brewing storm because he was ordered to, or did he disobey an order to remain in the safety of Boston Harbor?

The letter that sheds new light on the disaster was written Dec. 3, 1898, by C.F. Williams, the Boston agent of the Portland Steamship Company, to John F. Liscomb, the company's general manager in Portland.

Liscomb's great-grandson, 76-year-old Arthur Liscomb of Arundel, loaned the letter to the Portland Harbor Museum at Spring Point last week. The letter had been squirreled away in a big scrapbook of news clippings on the Portland's sinking that was started by John Liscomb himself.

"I told George Barton, the watchman, to watch the ring of telephone sure about nine o'clock for you had sent word for Capt. Blanchard to wait till 9 for weather report, but Capt. Blanchard would not for he was bound to go on time and that you would be wild to hear he had not waited," Williams wrote in the letter. "George Barton will swear I told him that and it only goes to show that I said to Capt. Blanchard all that a man could say to follow out your request for him to wait."

The letter doesn't say why Blanchard left Boston at the designated 7 p.m. departure time. It's also unclear whether Williams was simply trying to cover his own tracks by blaming the captain for the tragedy.

But museum officials suspect that's not the case, given the emotional tone of the letter, which was so hastily written that it skips some words.

"Now we know he heard the orders," said Martina Duncan, executive director of the Portland Harbor Museum, which plans to feature the letter in a special exhibit on shipwrecks that will run from April through November.

Ned Allen, curator of the Portland Harbor Museum, called the letter "a significant piece of evidence on this issue."

"Since it was written by Mr. Williams, it's still telling his side," Allen said. "But it certainly doesn't look like the sort of thing one would write after the fact, kind of covering up. It's so emotional. These people obviously just went through a very rough time in their life. This horrible disaster happened on their watch."

Mason Smith, author of "Four Short Blasts," a book about the disaster, said he did not want to comment much on the letter because he has not seen it or had time to compare it with other historical records. "This might indicate that Blanchard truly did sail on his own volition," he said, "but it doesn't necessarily prove that Liscomb told him to wait, either."

Arthur Liscomb said the scrapbook that held the letter was kept on a shelf in his mother's home for years, until she died in 1994. He said he found the scrapbook while cleaning out her house and that it's been in his house ever since.

He said the scrapbook was sometimes brought out on the anniversary of the disaster, and his family discussed their link to the steamship. The Portland now lies within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off northern Massachusetts, where it was discovered in 1989.

"It was always told to me that [Blanchard] was more or less to blame for the sinking of it," Liscomb said.

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