Wreck of the Bohemian
1864, leaving 42 dead
Greetings from Portland. Sweater weather is here. Every day this month I’m telling a story that bridges the gap between this world, and the next. I’m resurrecting the memory of Portlanders who’ve crossed over to the other side by posting one video each day, relating the tale of one, interesting “permanent Portlander.”
The Royal Mail Ship Bohemian approached Portland Harbor at night on February 22, 1864. Onboard were 19 cabin-class passengers. Farther below, stuffed in with the cargo and mail, were 200 Irish immigrants, hoping to start new lives in the New World.
In charge of the steamship that night was Capt. Robert Borland. He’d been a skipper for 22 years. Just past 7 p.m., a lookout spotted the twin Cape Elizabeth lighthouses through the fog. Then the captain realized the Bohemian was nearly six miles off its course.
Less than an hour later, the ship struck the top of Alden’s Rock, tearing a hole in the engine compartment. Before the water quenched the boilers, Capt. Borland gave the order to steam directly for land.
The Bohemian came to rest in 30 feet of water, a quarter mile from shore. She had plenty of lifeboats, but some rowed away half empty and didn’t return. Another boat, full of frantic steerage passengers, was swamped as overloaded davits pins gave out while it was lowering. Some passengers jumped into the icy waters when they saw the last boats leaving without them. Others were swept away by the waves.
Their bodies washed ashore in Cape Elizabeth for days.
The final count was 42 dead, including two crew members. The rest were Irish from below. A dozen were buried in a mass grave at Calvary Cemetery and didn’t get a stone until 1985.
Another 18 are thought to have been buried together in Forest City Cemetery. The location of that mass grave, like their names, is unknown and lost in time.
Today’s story is brought to you, in part, by Peter Dow Batchelder’s book, “Shipwrecks & Maritime Disasters of the Maine Coast,” published in 1997.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.