2015-08-28 / Community

A Window on the Past

It was a fiery end for the steamship Manhattan
By Kathryn DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society


The Manhattan, a boat built in Bath, caught fire on the Portland waterfront in 1910. (Courtesy photo) The Manhattan, a boat built in Bath, caught fire on the Portland waterfront in 1910. (Courtesy photo) In the early 1900s, before the automobile became affordable and used by the masses, the norm for travel from Portland to Boston, New York and beyond was by steamship. It was much faster and more comfortable than having to endure the trip by horseback or horse-drawn vehicle of some sort. Indeed, there were many steamship companies operating steamships along coastal routes, carrying both people and cargo.

One such steamship was the Manhattan, built in Bath in 1897 for the Maine Steamship Company. According to an early news article, “She was a wooden boat of 1892 tons gross and 2,500 horse power. Her length was 233.9 feet, beam 40.7, and depth 24.5.”

It was not known how a fire started on the ship, but the Manhattan caught fire about an hour after tying up to a dock on the Portland waterfront on March 7, 1910. The ship had just arrived from New York with six passengers, 39 crewmen and a load of cargo. With concern over the fire spreading to the dock and buildings in Portland, the steamer was towed across the Fore River to South Portland and beached near the breakwater to Bug Light, where they removed what they could of the shipping contents. Despite the efforts by a fireboat and five tugs to douse the flames, the fire could not be stopped and the ship was completely destroyed by the fire; the loss at the time was estimated as $250,000.

Kathryn DiPhilippo is director of South Portland Historical Society.

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