It’s rare that history… well… makes history.
Yet that happened last summer when an esteemed piece of history, the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last wooden whaleship sailed for the first time in more than ninety years. The oldest commercial vessel still afloat, the Morgan was built and launched in 1841 from the yard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Once part of an American whaling fleet that numbered more than 2,700 vessels, the Morgan sailed the world’s waters on thirty-seven voyages between 1841 and 1921, most of which lasted three years or more. Once, in the mid-1800s, the ship and its crew narrowly escaped hostile natives on a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean. The ship also successfully navigated crushing Arctic ice, countless storms, Cape Horn roundings, and, after it finished its whaling career, the Hurricane of 1938. Its ability to defy the odds and survive despite encountering these harrowing circumstances helped the Morgan earn a reputation as a lucky ship.
The ship is also something of a Hollywood star. After ending its whaling career in 1921, it appeared in the films Down to the Sea in Ships (starring a young Clara Bow) and Java Head. After this brief film stint, the ship was bought by a wealthy investor and put on display at his waterfront estate near New Bedford. After his death the ship eventually made its way to Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, in 1941. There, it became one of the features of the Mystic waterfront, and it remained there until recently.
In 2008 the ship was hauled out for an extensive, multimillion-dollar renovation. As a result of that renovation and its cost, the seaport began exploring the idea of sailing the vessel again for the first time in more than ninety years. Ultimately they sailed the ship again in an unprecedented move that generated headlines across New England and the world of traditional sailing. The voyage became known as the ship’s historic 38th voyage.
I had the privilege of writing about this voyage in an ongoing series of stories for Connecticut Magazine last summer. Before my first story was published, there was some question as to whether readers would care about an old vessel’s return to sea. The response to the first story made it clear that readers cared. The beauty of this vessel and the fascinating annals of its history in all its gory, ugly glory, clearly caught the public’s imagination in Connecticut and everywhere it sailed in New England. The sixteen-week voyage included stops in Newport, Rhode Island, New Bedford, Massachusetts and many other locations. Everywhere the Morgan went it was greeted with the type of passion normally reserved for rock stars or Apple products.
Throngs of people lined the banks of the Mystic River to watch the ship depart the Seaport. Fans cheered its arrival at its home port in New Bedford. In Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts, the ship sailed with whales in an attempt to bring attention to preservation efforts surrounding the animals it once brutally helped hunt to near extinction.
The voyage eventually came to an end when the ship returned to its longtime home at Mystic Seaport. Much of the fanfare and headlines surrounding the historic voyage have faded. However, the vessel still offers visitors a glimpse into an important world history. Crouching below deck on the Morgan, one gets the sense of how truly cramped a whale voyage was; it’s hard to imagine spending a week onboard, much less three years.
The whaling industry was undoubtedly cruel, and showed human shortsightedness at its worst—1800s whalemen could not fathom their efforts would have an effect on the global populations of the leviathans they haunted. The Morgan is probably the most important link to this history and as such is worthy of the headlines it made last summer and still worthy of people’s attention.