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The Last Whaleship: Mystic Seaport


You could probably make a case that whaling was one of the worst jobs of the nineteenth century. Cramped quarters shared on a voyage that usually lasted three to five years before heading home, stormy weather, and, when successful the days-long stink of cutting up whales into small enough chunks to be melted into oil on the deck.


Novels of the time sometimes give the trade a glamor job: strong men facing and beating danger together, sailing into the winds of fortune, and more, though others made it clear how dangerous a trade it was. And the reality comes a little bit clearer when you visit the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

Aboard the Charles W. Morgan, under full sail in 2014

First off, the ship is just over a hundred feet long, just over twice the length of the smaller whales it hunted, and just about the length of the biggest. All the spaces within the ship are low-ceilinged and with narrow passageways; the main spaces were reserved for the barrels of oil that made the profit for the voyage.


Sailors on those voyages, usually about 30, each got a share of the profit; how big a share depended on who you were. More for the officers, a good share for the skilled trades, sharply less for the common sailors. That ratio can be seen in the crew's quarters below decks.


For the captain, a pleasant-ish room with its own lavatory. While women may have been considered a jinx on warships, it was not uncommon for a whaling captain's wife to sail with him—five did on the Morgan—and one of them installed the bed in this picture, placed on rollers so it would stay steady as the ship rolled.


The first mate got a cabin of his own as well, but much smaller, although with a stand-up writing desk for keeping the ship's log. Shared space started with the second and third mates.


Down a bit in class, and more to the cabin were the skilled trades: carpenter, cook, steward and the cooper. The cooper made the barrels for the oil; they were usually made first on shore, and then disassembled into their wooden staves to be set up again as needed.


The rest of the crew had bunks in open working space further forward in the hold. Space in the lower levels of the ship was for storage of the oil and whalebone that were the products of the industry.


Once a whale was killed by the sailors who went out in six-man boats to harpoon it, it had to be hauled up next to the ship to keep it from sinking and to begin cutting away the blubber and baleen. The blubber had to be cut into smaller and smaller pieces, down to a size that would go in the large vessels placed on the try-stove, a brick firebox on the open deck.


Arguably, Mystic and the Morgan are a real case of symbiosis: The ship, last of New England's wooden whaling ships to survive, is kept alive by the Mystic Seaport Museum, and the museum owes much of its birth to the Charles W. Morgan.


The 100-foot long ship, barely longer than some of the whales it chased, had been retired in 1921, spent several years on exhibit in Massachusetts, and was slowly sinking into ruin while lawyers fought over her last owner's estate. In 1941, an agreement was reached to tow the ship to the Marine Historical Association in Mystic.

Ship's Galley: cramped cooking quarters. Below, a boat of the kind that were rowed out to harpoon the whale, and typical whale oil barrels.

That trip was almost as adventurous as her 37 whaling voyages over 80 years: first, the channel she was to be towed through proved too shallow, and more excavation was needed. Then, after a stop for caulking and preparation, she was caught by a tide and swept onto a mud flat down stream. But she finally reached Mystic on November 8, 1941.


The seaport village that now surrounds Morgan's dock arrived later, in moved buildings from other places and careful new constructions, always with the whaler at the center.


But for her first 25 years at Mystic, she carefully avoided the water. She was birthed at a dock, but the water that should have been there was replaced by a shoal of sand; without it, she was too weak and leaky to stay afloat.

But by 1968, Mystic had begun to develop its restoration shipyard as part of both its historic mission and its maintenance necessity. One of the projects was making Morgan seaworthy, or at least dockworthy again.

morgan in drydock

In 2010, she underwent another multi-million dollar restoration that went all the way to seaworthy; in 2014, she sailed the coast of New England again, stopping at New London, Connecticut; Newport, Rhode Island; Boston and where it all began in 1841, New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Morgan under sail on her 2014 trip; inset is the ship at work in 1908


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  • morgan in drydock

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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