Saturday, March 01, 2008

In Days of Old...

On a snowy day, please allow me to mull some things over online for the rest of you to read.

Sitting here in Portland as the storm seems to be winding down, I've been reading through Alton Blackington's Yankee Yarns. While some of the stories are whimsical, others follow tragedies that seem far away and unlikely to happen again in this day and age. Mixed in with these accounts are an element that also seems to have gone from our world -- the real reporter, who from the look of things, is all but gone from the modern world, leaving few successors to that mantle of honor. Illustration from Allie Ryan collection, Maine State Museum, as found on the very interesting site Hunting New England Shipwrecks.

What do I mean by a "real reporter"? I mean someone who digs for a story, someone who tells what's really going on. Someone who is not just a complicit party to the selling of ad space. Someone who walks up to another human being, shakes their hand, and finds out what is really going on. Beyond that, a real reporter is someone who takes a risk when that sixth sense, the sense that tells you a story is there, kicks in.

Let me tell you about some of the reporters who caused this little mulling session this morning. The whole episode you see before you is mostly the fault of Blackington's chapter on the sinking of the steamer Portland, lost with all hands off the coast of Massachusetts on her way back to Portland's harbor in the middle of the Thanksgiving weekend storm of 1898. I am not going to recount that tragedy, in which 176 souls were lost, for many before me have this sombre job already.

Instead, I am going to mention a few stalwart men who were charged with telling the world what had happened, and did this and more.

Charles Ward, the Chatham reporter for the Boston Herald, slogged on foot and by horse for miles through flooded railroad tracks and more to eventually deliver the verified news of the Portland's terrible doom to the Herald's office in Boston, because the telegraph lines, like the rail lines, were torn apart in the storm. His determined effort resulted in the headline you see here.

Frank P. Sibley, a young man of 26 years and just starting his as-yet-part-time career at the Boston Journal, was set the task of getting the first list of those who had perished on board the Portland, a list which this early in the sequence of events was thought to be much shorter than it turned out to be. He found himself in the India Wharf office of the Portland Steam Packet company, which was "jammed with anxious people, all asking about the missing steamer and its passengers." A single company bookkeeper was keeping watch behind the counter, answering the phone and giving answers as well as he could to every soul that walked through the door looking for news of their relatives.

The passenger list was not on hand -- Sibley was told that it was on board the boat itself. Instead of walking out of the door emptyhanded, he offered his assistance to the exhausted clerk, and entering the ticket booth, sat down with notebook and calm voice to answer the ever-ringing phone, taking name and address of each caller as well as the name of the passenger they were inquiring after. With this he got the first list of passengers -- a bare start of thirty names, but more than anyone else had managed, which was delivered by runner to the Journal -- while at the same time stepping in where help was needed.

Frank Stanyan was working for the Boston Globe on that fateful weekend, and was sent by the city editor along with a sketch artist to Cape Cod, where in Orleans they set up base with the rest of the press corps. Stanyan, along with others like Dr. Samuel T. Davis, who was in charge of identifying the victims, spent the next two days trudging up and down the desolate coast of Nauset Beach, "where for miles wreckage had been hurled ashore, in some places ten feet high."

Working amidst beachcombers who were hauling away the ship's broken timbers and metalwork, as well as other salvage items, from tubs of butter to bolts of cloth, as the waves tossed them up onto the beach, Stanyan struggled to retrieve any items or remains from the flotsam that would help identify the victims of the wreck, who were body by body rolling in with the breakers as the days wore on. After two days another storm threatened to roll in, and Stanyan, discouraged and weary, packed his notebook away in his pocket and headed back the miles to Orleans, where his reporter brethren were tucked in against the cold.

On arriving, he was told by his fellows that the wires were down, and his terrible labor in retrieving the victims' names would have to sit heavy in his pocket until line repairs were made the next day. Unsettled, he roamed out of the hotel, and following the lights of a small building through the snow, thought he heard the click of a telegraph key from outside the edifice. Poking his head in, he found the Cape Cod end of the French Cable Station, where a young clerk was working late sending signals under the ocean to France, many miles away.

Inspiration struck, and he convinced the fellow to send, via roundabout means, his story to the Globe office in Boston -- from Orleans on Cape Cod, the signal went out to "St. Pierre and Miquelon, then under the wild, dark Atlantic Ocean to Brest, France... from Brest to London, and from London via British Postal Service to Ireland, then, roughly, 2500 miles to Canso, Nova Scotia, and down the storm-swept coast of New England into Boston," where noted and delivered, the message arrived on his editor's desk:
And so, as the snow comes down outside, and I am snug in my modern-day livingroom with my laptop and this good book, I feel like there should still be room in the world for people such as this, people who will hunt a story and help the people in it as they go.

As a sidenote, in September of 2003, the more-than-century-old wreck of the Portland was explored and documented. You can read about it, and see lots of images, too, on the NOAA's Steamship Portland Exploration site. Boston headline image (above) from NOAA's site.

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