New Bedford eager to give the Charles W. Morgan a warm welcome

Some people from Mystic Seaport planning the homecoming visit of the Charles W. Morgan to its longtime homeport of New Bedford have joked about the notion that the city might close the gates to a huge hurricane barrier that can seal off its harbor, to keep the whaleship from leaving again.

I caught up with New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell Tuesday, on the eve of the Morgan's historic visit, and I asked him whether Seaport officials need to worry about the hurricane gates trapping their ship.

The ship, which was towed from New Bedford to Mystic in 1941, was scheduled to leave this morning from Vineyard Haven and arrive in New Bedford in early afternoon.

"No promises," Mitchell said, his face turning to a slight, devilish grin, contemplating a closing of the gates.

People in New Bedford seem almost giddy this week about the Morgan visit, which they note proudly will last through the Fourth of July holiday.

A park ranger - the downtown historic district is a national park dedicated to New Bedford's whaling heritage - told me with obvious pride that Boston wanted the ship for the Fourth, but Mystic said no, it's going to be home for the national holiday.

Indeed, almost everywhere you go downtown you can tune in to the Morgan anticipation, from banners and street signs to coffee shop chatter. Numerous festivals and celebrations, including whaleboat races, are scheduled to mark the visit.

There are several paintings of the Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship, in the front window of the prominent Arthur Moniz Gallery. One is titled "The Charles W. Morgan: The Survivor."

"There's going to be everything from ecumenical services to cocktail parties," said John W. Whalen Jr., a volunteer at the 1831 Seamen's Bethel, built by the Quakers as a non-denominational place of worship and refuge for sailors and now run by the nonprofit New Bedford Port Society.

At the Bethel, which even has a Herman Melville pew, workers were busy Tuesday finishing up a renovation project and preparing to take down some scaffolding, in preparation for the Morgan's arrival.

In fact, all around the city, private and city workers seemed busy with paint brushes and landscape shovels, polishing things up. Some estimates have as many as 75,000 visitors coming to New Bedford over the next few weeks.

Volunteer Whalen at the Bethel, who says he followed his father in working in the fishing industry, says the city's strong connection to the sea and its roots in whaling are hard to overestimate.

Whalen said he even remembers the celebrations and parade that the city staged back in 1956, to mark the release of the movie "Moby Dick" and a visit by its star, Gregory Peck.

He said the Morgan visit this week will be a reminder of the way the city can put on a good show to celebrate its heritage.

The Morgan visit, he added, is a little like New Bedford's own World Cup.

To illustrate how present-day New Bedford is so closely connected to a history with the sea, Whalen pointed out one of the many memorial tablets on the wall of the Bethel, remembering those who have been lost.

Included in the crew of one memorial is Capt. Alex Mitchell, the mayor's grandfather, who died in 1952.

The mayor told me that the visit by the Morgan comes at an especially good time for the city, which he said is turning a corner in economic redevelopment.

"People take their history seriously here, and this is like an act of redemption," he said. "The ship's departure has always been seen as emblematic of New Bedford's decline over the years. And now we are at a point where New Bedford is on the rise again."

And the last wooden whaling ship, a reminder of the city's glory years as one of the richest places on earth, is returning.

It's also a remarkable way to bring a city's history alive again.

It's almost as if, for instance, in New London, Eugene O'Neill were to suddenly appear again at the Dutch Tavern, lift his head from the bar and ask for a drink.

In New Bedford, it will be the city loyalists who will be drinking up soon, toasting the handsomely restored Morgan, a surprise salute from Connecticut.

And maybe they'll get enough, and the mayor won't order the hurricane gates closed.

This is the opinion of David Collins

David Collins

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