Morgan's whaling days outlasted New London's
When the Charles W. Morgan is towed into New London this weekend, the world's last wooden whaling ship will arrive at what was once the nation's second-largest whaling port.
It would seem to be a reunion of old friends, but the Morgan was based in New Bedford, Mass., the other Whaling City, and its many travels brought it here only once.
Throughout its 80-year career, the Morgan, built in 1841, was known for its phenomenal luck, while New London's whaling fortunes rose and fell. Here are a few snapshots in time of how the ship and the city were faring in their parallel careers.
c. 1851: Narrow escape
Becalmed and helplessly drifting toward a reef off Sydenham Island in the central Pacific, the Morgan's crew had more to worry about than grounding. Natives of the island were watching from canoes and preparing to attack.
The crew gathered lances, harpoons, spades and firearms, and readied the ship for action if any natives tried to board. When the first canoes came alongside, the natives were met by sharp metal stabbing down at them from above. A second group of attackers were similarly repelled and left bleeding as they paddled away.
As the reef loomed ever closer, more natives watched from the island, dancing and shouting as they awaited the inevitable wreck. But the drift changed direction in the nick of time, carrying the Morgan safely past the obstruction and into deeper water.
"When we saw all danger past, did we not yell in derision to those blue-bellied beggars, who had stopped their clatter on seeing the ship pass what they made sure would be her doom!" wrote crew member Nelson Cole Haley.
On the other side of the world, New London was basking in the prosperity brought by its leading industry. In 1851, nine firms launched 30 voyages in search of whale oil and baleen, most to the northern Pacific or to forbidding Desolation Island in the southern Indian Ocean.
Whaling had been a modest but growing enterprise in New London for more than a century, but it didn't take off until after the War of 1812. As more ships fanned out across the globe, the city grew and looked ahead.
Between 1820 and 1850, its population tripled to 9,000. Banks and factories opened, and the most recent good omen was the railroad, which could already carry travelers as far north as Palmer, Mass.
But New London didn't know its whaling era had peaked. The first ominous sign had come in 1849, when two dozen captains departed for what seemed like something even more lucrative: the California gold rush.
1865: Wrath of the Shenandoah
Fifteen years later, as the Civil War drew to a close, the city's fortunes were no longer in doubt: Whaling wasn't dead, but its future was bleak.
The financial panic of 1857 had put one prosperous firm, Perkins and Smith, out of business, while the birth of the oil industry had made kerosene cheaper than whale oil.
When war came, men and capital became scarce. Nearly a dozen New London vessels were lost to the "Stone Fleet," filled with rocks and sunk at the mouths of southern ports. Other New London whalers would also become casualties of war.
On the Pacific island of Ponape, the captain of the whaleship Pearl was returning from a visit ashore when he was astonished to find a vessel flying Confederate colors in the harbor. It was the raider CSS Shenandoah, on a mission to destroy the Northern whaling fleet.
The Pearl and three other vessels were turned over to natives of the island for plundering, then burned.
Nearly three months later, the Shenandoah appeared hundreds of miles to the north, in the Bering Sea. When it seized the General Williams of New London, the whaler's captain cried like a baby. His ship went up in flames, and another local vessel, the Catherine, was burned the next day.
The Shenandoah set its sights on a third New London whaler, the Nile, but its captain saved his ship by signing an IOU to the Confederate government for $41,000. What no one knew in this remote region was that there was no more Confederate government. The war had ended months earlier.
The Shenandoah had also hunted whalers in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East but was driven off by heavy ice. Among the 15 or so ships spared from likely destruction was the Charles W. Morgan.
It was more luck for the lucky ship, but the voyage was also clouded by misfortune. The captain's 16-year-old son fell overboard and drowned. His wife soon presented him with a new son, and the baby was named for his dead brother. He came aboard at the age of three weeks and stayed for the last two years of the voyage.
With a harpoon piercing deep into its body, the bowhead whale began to swim furiously, dragging a small boat from the Morgan on a "Nantucket sleigh ride" far across the Okhotsk Sea. The crew managed to kill the whale, but as night settled in, they could no longer see their ship.
Four days later, they landed on Sakhalin Island after a 100-mile journey and ventured inland looking for signs of life. The Morgan had followed, its captain believing the island the most likely place to find his lost crewmen.
But a search party from the ship and the castaways missed each other by hours, and when the boat crew spotted the Morgan off shore, their frantic signals went unnoticed.
The castaways found their way to two Russian prison camps, where after being detained, they were able to get to Vladivostok and civilization. They eventually reached San Francisco a month after the Morgan had returned there and reported them lost.
"I tell you, it was like coming back from death to life," wrote boat steerer William H. Griffiths.
In New London, there would be no coming back. Just one whaling ship was still sailing, and the city had moved on. The symbol of the future that year was the new railroad bridge across the Thames River, the largest of its kind in the world.
Three years later, when that last ship, aptly named the Era, made port for the final time, the era of New London whaling was over.
1941: A brief stopover
What finally brought the Morgan and New London together was not whaling but dredging.
Its working days over in the 1920s, the Morgan had become an attraction, embedded in sand and concrete at an estate in South Dartmouth, Mass. When its owner died, the ship faced an uncertain future until it was bought by the Marine Historical Association, now Mystic Seaport.
The Morgan was supposed to be towed by the Coast Guard to Mystic overnight. But at the mouth of the Mystic River, the cutter General Greene found the channel blocked by a dredge, leaving too little room to maneuver.
So the 100-year-old ship was towed to New London and docked at the Coast Guard base at Fort Trumbull. It was the worse for wear from its years out of the water and the battering it had taken from the 1938 hurricane.
For New London, whaling was now a distant memory, and the city had cast its lot with submarines. Across the river, Electric Boat was gearing up production for what seemed like the inevitable entry of the U.S. into World War II.
That would come sooner than expected. The Morgan's one full day in New London was Nov. 7, 1941 - exactly a month before Pearl Harbor.
The next day, the ship was eased away from Fort Trumbull and, nudged along by a towboat, made its way to its new home in Mystic.
So this weekend's arrival is a reunion of sorts after all. The Morgan returns to the last port it visited before 73 years in Mystic. And New London welcomes back the last whaling ship ever to enter its harbor.
Sources for this story
- “Whaling Industry of New London” by Robert Owen Decker
- “The Last Shot” by Lynn Schooler
- “The Charles W. Morgan: The Last Wooden Whaleship” by Edouard A. Stackpole
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