Historical photo of the Portland under way.

Historical photo of the Portland under way. Image courtesy of Maine Historical Society.

The Steamship Portland and the National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program

Bruce Terrell
Senior Archaeologist
National Marine Sanctuary Program

What does it mean to the Portland’s future now that positive evidence confirms that it lies within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary?

New advances in remote sensing and diving technology mean that it is increasingly easier for divers to find and dive on deep shipwrecks. While many divers respect the integrity of wrecks, there are a few who collect souvenirs from their explorations. As the wrecks are continuously plundered and stripped of artifacts, more of the unique story of that ship, its people, and the communities they served are lost forever. This means that all future visitors and researchers are deprived of the right to study and appreciate these maritime heritage resources.

NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries protect significant historic shipwrecks as archaeological resources. Newly discovered shipwreck sites, such as the Portland, are mapped and filmed so that the managers can understand the significance of the site. They may develop educational materials to help the public understand lessons about our common American heritage and the importance of protecting these sites for future generations.

The sanctuary can involve the public in protecting these sites in a variety of ways, including training volunteer divers in archaeological methods, making presentations in public forums, and developing interpretive materials to help divers understand the sites they are diving on. By helping the public feel ownership of underwater archaeological resources, sanctuaries can create a sense of public ownership and stewardship in the management process.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Maritime Heritage Program, formally created in 2002, is an initiative of the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Protection of historic shipwrecks and other maritime archaeological sites within the boundaries of the 13 National Marine Sanctuaries has always been an integral component of each sanctuary’s management plan.

As with natural resources, numerous user and interest groups, from archaeologists to recreational divers to salvors, seek to interact with archaeological resources in various ways. These resources are also impacted by the elements (e.g., storms, currents, corrosion). Informed decisions must be made about how to manage these sites since, unlike living resources, archaeological resources are nonrenewable.


Image compiled from a series of video stills by Jeff Johnston of the Monitor NMS. (Photo: Monitor NMS)

Additionally, the archaeological resources within NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries, if properly studied and interpreted, can add an extra dimension to our education programs designed to increase public enjoyment and appreciation of each sanctuary.

Two sanctuary sites, the Monitor and the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuaries, focus entirely on historic shipwrecks. A few more recent examples of this maritime archaeological work within sanctuary waters include: