The Whaleship Charles W Morgan in a Nutshell

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Radio controlled model of the Morgan sails at Mystic Seaport

The Whaleship Charles W Morgan

It was 1841 and one of the whaleships heading out of New Bedford on the morning tide carried a new crewman on his first whale hunt. Herman Melville was to become famous as the author of a great classic nautical novel, Moby Dick , that has become a popular read down generations and across the world. As Herman Melville watched the receding shore, a new whale ship was being launched from a New Bedford yard.

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The Morgan, dressed overall in 1947

The new ship had been known only by the yard number, being built for a respected New Bedford businessman and ship owner. Away on a business trip, Charles W Morgan left the responsibility for naming and launching with a relative. It is believed that the relative named the new ship for Charles W Morgan as a surprise.

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The Charles W. Morgan slid out of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman’s shipyard in New Bedford, MA, on July 21, 1841. She had taken 7 months to construct with 31 men working on her, at a cost of $26,877 to build and another $25,977 to outfit for her first voyage.
Her first voyage cut into 51 whales. On December 13, 1841, her first whale produced 17 barrels of oil. Over the course of her career, she brought in 54,483 barrels of whale oil and 152,934 pounds of whale bone. She was just one of hundreds of whaleships operating out of US ports in 1841. She was 113 feet long and classed as a 351 ton whaling ship. Her beam was 27-feet, 6-inches with a 17-foot, 6-inch depth. Her main truck was 110 feet above the deck. The sail capacity was over 13,000 square feet. She carried 4 whale boats (later a fifth was added). The Morgan typically carried a crew of 30 to 36 men. Her cruising speeds could reach over 9 knots.

MORGAN at Chubb's Wharf

The Morgan was typical of the factory ships of her time and she was part of a highly profitable industry, close to the height of its activity. Charles Morgan originally owned 8/16 shares of the vessel. It was not unusual for a new whaleship to cover the cost of her building, fitting out and voyage costs on the first voyage and to return a profit!! No other undertaking at that time could equal the profitability and it was an oil rush, fuelling industrializing societies.

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This Japanese painting shows a scene familiar to many coastal communities around the world

Whaling was as old as history. Initially it was largely opportunistic. Coastal communities would see a beached whale and cut it up for food and materials to be used in building and in making clothes and tools. Some communities learned how to use sound to drive pods of whales into bays and into shallow water where they could be killed, dragged ashore and cut up for the community. The whale population found no difficulty in making up their losses to human hunting and the whaling industry was entirely sustainable.
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Seal of The Russia (or Muscovi) Company

In the Sixteenth Century, Elizabeth Tudor granted a monopoly of whaling in Northern waters to the Muscovi Company. They operated in the Spitsbergen islands where they used a more intensive method of whaling based on ancient practice. Principally, they built processing facilities in the main harbours and bays, using small boats to drive whales ashore in the bays and fighting off any other whalers.

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James I (James VI of Scotland) claimed the islands for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the whalers of other countries either paid a license to hunt Spitsbergen whales or be excluded. As British colonists established themselves along the coast of New England, they found whales plentiful in North American waters, hunting them in the same way as the Spitsbergen hunters had. In that largely agricultural community, whale products were mainly meat and oil for lamps, but thrifty colonists tried to use every part of the whale, developing new uses, including glazing and materials for clothing and tools.

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By the 19th Century, American whalers dominated the industry

By the Nineteenth Century, the whaling industry was dominated by American whalers and the whale stocks were becoming depleted along the coasts of New England, Canada and Newfoundland. Fortunately for American whalers, Dutch whalers had discovered how to catch and process whales at sea to get around the British monopoly in the Spitsbergen islands, and British whalers had begun hunting whale from the Bering Strait, South to Antarctica. During the Napoleonic Wars, British whaling in the Pacific provided vital materials for a growing industrial revolution and arms industry. Whale oil was by then an important lubricant for the industrial machines and for providing light to enable factories to operate beyond the hours of daylight. Where today plastic might be used, whale products provided the material for a very wide range of manufactured products. The result was that towards the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the Morgan and her sisters were operating far from shore and in some of the most inhospitable waters. She ranged down to the Antarctic and delivered her cargo of whale product to East and West coast American ports.

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Steam whaleships and spotter aircraft left no room for the old sailing whaleships

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Today, the Japanese hunt whales for “research” purposes and anyone can join in the “research” by visiting Japanese restaurants.

The whaling industry only went into decline when methods of extracting and refining petroleum oil developed, with railways providing the means to ship barrels of petrochemical fractions around the US and other countries, together with the construction of ships to carry crude oil and refined fractions across oceans. Although crude oil could produce manufactured lubricants, whale oil has continued to be valued for the lubrication of delicate mechanisms, such as clocks and watches.

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Warships use powerful sonar systems that have been claimed as the worst noise pollution, harming the whale population. It is claimed that the new Royal Navy attack submarine, shown above, can listen to shipping movements in US ports without leaving her home port in the British Isles, an indication of the power of her sonar

Some have claimed that the Nineteenth Century whalers halved the whale population. That has been contested but certainly very large numbers of whales were killed and cut up. Research is now showing that the greatest threat to whales has come not from hunting but from noise pollution. As steam began to replace sail, the new larger vessels generated sound which polluted the low frequency sub-band channels that many whales depend on for long distance communications and finding a mate. As diesel came to replace steam, the problem became worse. Then the Royal Navy began using ASDIC to locate submarines and, under the later name of sonar, the system proliferated and became significantly more powerful, greatly increasing sound pollution and probably having other effects on whales that disorient them, leading to more whales beaching and to their communities being broken up. Whalerships like the Morgan had much less impact on the whale population by not causing noise polution.

The Morgan was first sold for $17,000 to Edward Mott Robinson on March 8, 1848. During her active whaling career, she had 5 owners. Between September 6, 1841, and September 9, 1920, she had 37 working voyages. During her first 30 years, she returned with only one cargo worth under $50,000. The most profitable voyage brought in a cargo of $165,407.35, but the least profitable voyage brought in a mere $8,977.50. The longest voyage was 1,801 days long (nearly 5 years). More than 1,000 sailors worked aboard the Morgan during her career, representing more than 50 countries. The Morgan survived 1 cannibal attack, 1 deliberately set fire and she narrowly escaped from the Confederate warship Shenandoah. She rescued 1 crewman from a burning ship and 5 escaped Russian convicts. Her last voyage began September 9, 1920, and ended May 28, 1921. One Morgan harpooneer wrote a book detailing his experiences and this has been reprinted recently

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Several books have been written by whale hunters. This recent reprint is of an account by a harpooneer who sailed on the Morgan

John E.D. Smith logged the most time and miles aboard the Morgan as he shipped for 23 years between 1868 and 1891. She hosted the wives of 5 captains. Some, perhaps most, were no indolent passengers, at least one acting as one of the navigators. The Morgan had 20 different captains. James A.M. Earle served the longest sea miles of them as he sailed on her for 10 years over 9 voyages.

Her hold has the capacity for 3,000 barrels (each barrel holding 31.5 gallons of oil); therefore, she could potentially bring home over 90,000 gallons of oil. Even before she retired from whaling, she was used in movies. In 1916, “Miss Petticoats” was partly filmed aboard. After her last whaling voyage, she was used in the filming of “Down to the Sea in Ships”, 1922 and: “Java Head”, 1930.

Her last voyage in 1921 was to Desolation Island in Antarctic waters to hunt for elephant seal. By then, steam-powered whale catchers and steam powered factory ships were being introduced and equipped with seaplanes to spot for whales at a time when demand for whale product was falling. In that environment there was little hope for profitable cargoes for a sailing ship. After her whaling days were over, the Morgan was preserved as an exhibit through the efforts of a number of dedicated citizens. After being on display in South Dartmouth, MA, until 1941, she came to Mystic Seaport, where each year thousands of visitors have walked her decks and heard the fascinating story of her career as a whaling vessel, historic exhibit, film and media star, and a porthole into America’s rich history.
When the Morgan arrived at Mystic Seaport, the museum was still in its early days, converting a family shipyard into a museum town with working exhibits and a growing collection of historic boats of all sizes. Before the move to Mystic Seaport, the Morgan had been damaged in a hurricane and was in need of urgent restoration work. Over the years, several emergency repairs and progressive restoration made her a reliable exhibit afloat, but several museum members had ambitions to restore her to at least limited sailing condition. What made this more than a pipedream was the development of the Henry B du Pont Preservation shipyard as part of the museum complex. This meant that the Morgan could be brought ashore to one of the long term restoration berths. The major restoration could then be commenced without having to find all of the funds first and pay large sums for dry docking over a protracted period.

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Masts and yards were taken down with help from volunteers in whalers of the type the Morgan once carried

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Without the top hamper of masts and rigging, the Morgan was towed round to the restoration shipyard on the other side of the museum complex from her normal berth.

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A large crowd watched as the Morgan was raised on the ship lift and her dolly was checked before further movement on the rail track to her restoration berth

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The Morgan was moved towards her restoration berth on the track system, before being chained across into the berth

On November 1, 2008, the Charles W. Morgan was hauled ashore at Mystic Seaport’s Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard. The 340-ton-vessel was raised up on the Museum’s shiplift in front of a crowd of more than 500.
Earlier in the week, the Morgan’s masts, rigging and 40 tons of concrete and lead ballast were removed in preparation for her haul.

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Once positioned in her berth. she was secured and canvas was used to roof over her and skirt the lower hull. A tower was built to allow visitors to watch some of the work aboard.

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Lantern Light Tours at Mystic Seaport

While the Morgan was surveyed and scanned, the life of Mystic seaport continued around the museum

The 167-year-old whaler has remained in the shipyard until her 2013 relaunch undergoing a $8 million restoration. During this time, visitors were able to climb a platform to observe the restoration process, as well as experience a brand-new exhibition which will provide new perspectives on every facet of the whaling era. From the lively Sea Music Festival to international food and culture events celebrating the ship’s ports of call, the arts will come alive at Mystic Seaport.

And for those fascinated by scientific discovery, there will be opportunities to understand the origins of modern navigation, the mysteries of whale habits and habitats and the power of the wind, currents and weather.

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Overhead steel track was installed down both sides below decks to assist in moving tools and materials during the refit

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During her major restoration, the Morgan was periodically joined by other historic ships undergoing refits and repairs

Having successfully moved the Morgan to her restoration berth, and built a viewing platform, that was designed to look part of the work in hand, the key stage was to carry out a detailed survey and build the archaeology. There were parts of the ship that had never been seen since her launching in 1841. It was known that some parts were in the most urgent need of reconstruction, but only a full survey with advanced technology would identify just how bad or how good the hull was. A Boston land survey company was given the job of conducting a green laser scan of the complete vessel, to produce a 3D digital mapping, from which could be taken working drawings to aid the shipwrights as they began a restoration that was expected to last for at least three years, with the aim of then refitting the masts, yards and sails to enable a Restoration Voyage to be undertaken in 2013 or 2014. It was hoped that the USS Constitution, then having a major refit for the War of 1812 celebrations, would still be in sailing condition, so that the oldest Commissioned warship afloat could join the only surviving sailing whaleship when the Morgan reached Boston for a unique sail past.

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A key part of the work involved the innovative use of green laser scanning to produce a 3D imaging of the whole ship. Without this technology the restoration would have been very much more demanding and possibly unviable economically

The restoration was an enormous undertaking and one quote from the restoration team was “the good news is that she is as we expected and the bad news is that she is as we expected.”

American white oak from trees felled by a hurricane were used together with long leaf and short leaf pine. New iron fittings were made in the museum’s forge, and tools used at the time of the Morgan’s construction were used alongside the most modern tools, including green laser, sonic and radar scanners.

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The beautifully restored hull is about to be lowered back into the water, but there is a great deal still to do before she can get underway again under her own sails

When the Morgan was triumphantly lowered back into the water on the shiplift, the major work had been completed, but there is still a great deal left to do. Detailed finishing work on the hull and deck will return the Morgan to her condition on that day in 1841 when her keel first touched salt water. The masts will be stepped and the yards refitted. New rigging and sails will complete the restoration and this magnificent old vessel will again be ready to put to sea once more under wind power.

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A shipyard worker scraping paint off the hurricane house

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The ship at her present berth next to the shiplift after the launch

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A shipwright shaping the new bowsprit in the shop

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Lead ballast being loaded over the rail

As the restoration has moved ahead, two parallel undertakings have run alongside her restoration work. A crew has been formed and trained to handle her for the voyage down the US East Coast. Unlike many a tall ship, the Morgan will not include modern power winches, auxiliary engines and other current state equipment. The Morgan is first and last a faithful exhibit of 1840s ship technology and sailing practices. Just as the shipwrights had to relearn some skills long lost, the new crew will have to learn how to sail an 1841 ship-rigged sailing vessel. As they and the shipwrights learned old skills, the archaeologists have been busy studying the product of the advanced scanning to understand how the Morgan was put together and maintained through her working life. Without these scans, restoration would have been difficult to impossible because very few drawings have survived from the past and, in all probability, much of the work during construction, and particularly during later refits, would have employed only the most basic drawings, in some cases sketched on the materials that were being used. Having a detailed 3D imaging set for the complete vessel is an enormous benefit for archaeology, and vital for the shipwrights, now and in future maintenance. The new shore-side exhibit that has been developing will provide a unique combination of records and artifacts through the life of the Morgan, up to and including, her new life as a working exhibit, uniquely portraying a nautical industry now long gone.

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