Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Seventy years ago this week, gawkers flocked to the Cape Elizabeth shore. Hawkers sold hamburgers and parked cars blocked the roads. Rubberneckers kept coming in a steady stream right through the summer. They all wanted to have a gander at the coal ship Oakey L. Alexander’s mangled carcass.
The gale on March 3, 1947 was a doozy. Onshore winds howled at 80 mph. Off shore, they raged at 100 MPH. The keeper at Portland Head Light reported 40-foot waves crashing over the rocks.
Up the coast in Phippsburg, seven homes washed away at Popham Beach. The Pemaquid II, a fishing boat out of New Harbor, sank off Portland. Her two crewmen drowned. The Canadian freighter Novadoc vanished without a trace in Casco Bay. Her crew of 25 were never seen again.
Meanwhile, the Oakey L. Alexander struggled through the gale four miles off Cape Elizabeth. She was loaded with coal, making for Portland on her 850th trip from Virginia.
Just before 5 a.m., a massive wave lifted the ship clean out of the water. The forward third broke off and sank to the bottom.
Luckily, the front section tore at the seam of a watertight bulkhead. The steam engines stayed dry and Capt. Raymond Lewis stayed calm.
Capt. Lewis could see the giant wave had smashed or washed away all the lifeboats. He ordered his 32 crewmen into life jackets and told the engineers to keep the boilers stoked.
He then somehow steered his mutilated ship — which had no bow — toward the shore.
An hour later, the Alexander ground to a halt on a Cape Elizabeth ledge 150 yards from dry land. Everybody was still alive.
But they weren’t out of danger, yet. Powerful waves were still smashing into the stranded ship, flooding the decks. Plus, they had no way of getting ashore.
But the Coast Guard showed up less than an hour later. Using something called a Lyle gun, they fired a rescue line out to the Alexander. One by one, dangling from the rope in a sling, the men came ashore. Doctors from Portland’s osteopathic hospital examined each crewman. They’d driven through the storm on icy roads to see if they could help.
Capt. Lewis was the last man off the ship.
Eventually, most of the Alexander was cut up and sold for scrap — but not all of her. They say, during very low tides, you can see what’s left of her still sitting on the ledge. She’s right where Captain Lewis parked her.
Note: If you want to learn more about Capt. Lewis and the Oakey L. Alexander, get a copy of Peter Dow Bachelder’s book “Shipwrecks & Maritime Disasters of the Maine Coast.”
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 and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.