The Charles W. Morgan returns to New Bedford
The end of June, 2014, after an absence of 73 years, the Charles W. Morgan returned to her original home port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and my head is still spinning. We traveled down to attend the weekend homecoming festivities. Our agenda included the opening ceremony on Saturday, a tour of the ship, visits to the New Bedford Whaling Museum and Seamen’s Bethel, and the annual luncheon meeting of the Descendants of Whaling Masters (DWM) on Sunday.
We lucked out on the hotel. Fortunately, the DWM had the forethought to reserve a block of rooms across the street from the state pier, so we could park the car for the weekend and walk just about everywhere we wanted to go. Great! We’re right across the street from the pier… with a handsome old stone building precisely blocking our view of the ship … oh well.
Business hours being what they are, our first visit was to the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library on Friday afternoon.
We weren’t entirely sure what we were going to find, but we did bring a list of ships, sailors, voyages, and dates that we planned to investigate. Fortunately, that was enough to turn up more than we bargained for. Faint hope faded entirely when we found that the only snippet of log material for either of Robert Brown’s voyages on Montezuma consisted of a scant month’s worth of journal entries from a sailor who didn’t stay long with the ship and mentioned nothing at all of our people.
The biggest treat was browsing through the pages of James Rogers’s log of the Mentor voyage during which our Robert and Charlotte met. Who’d have thought a crusty ol’ sailor would have such lovely penmanship! Somehow it seemed more real than the abridged published version. And an extra set of eyes on the text suggested the perfect title for Charlotte’s biography… how does A Deal of Trouble sound?
The real surprise was finding not one, but two logs from Navy’s 1859-61 voyage during which our Nelson Cole Haley sailed as first mate. One log was kept by Captain Andrew Sarvent, and the second by Haley, himself. Haley and Sarvent started as greenhands about the same time and worked their way up through the ranks on various whaling vessels, but it would seem the two gentlemen were not great friends. It’s interesting to note their varying perspectives in describing the same events. At any rate, the revelation here is that clearly Haley and Sarvent quarreled, which resulted in Haley being “discharged before the Consul at the port of Hilo” in November of 1861. Thus, another family myth is debunked—unless the shipboard accident from which we always thought he was left to recover was nothing more than a slip of the tongue?
Dinner in a scrumptious little Portuguese restaurant with fortuitous seating next to a filmmaker from New Zealand (www.admiralsdog.com) who’s working on a documentary about 19th century American whalers in New Zealand. Alas, she wasn’t willing to give up her berth among the 38th Voyagers for me (can’t imagine why), but the conversation was interesting and company congenial. We’ll look forward seeing her film when it’s completed.
So ends the first day.
These 24 hours commences …
(how many times did Haley write those words?)
Saturday morning on the New Bedford State Pier was a jolly time, indeed. First event of the day was to be the opening ceremony, which of course, involved lots of standing around ahead of time waiting for things to happen. The best part was mingling in the event hall and chatting with some of the people who made the whole thing happen.
with Matthew Stackpole,
Mystic Seaport historian
It was great to catch up again with Matthew Stackpole, Mystic Seaport historian (among other things) and official chronicler of the Morgan restoration.
Among (but not all of) the grand procession, we met:
Sarah Bullard, descended from Charles W. Morgan, himself (the man, not the ship) and James Russell, Director of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, acting as master of ceremonies. Our other new favorite person is Susan Funk, Mystic Seaport executive vice president, who offered to get us out on the water in whaleboats during the reunion later this summer. (Hurray!) Alas, too far across the crowd to chat, but we did get a chance to see Nathaniel Philbrick, seriously cool author and historian…maybe we’ll catch up with him next time.
From the seaport: Steve White, president; Barclay Collins, chairman of the board, Kip Files, current master of the Morgan, and keeping his head down when he has every reason to be extremely proud of himself was Quentin Snediker, Director of the DuPont Shipyard at Mystic Seaport, which spent so many years bringing the Morgan back to seaworthiness. Descendants of Whaling Masters: Bill King, newly minted DWM president, and
Bruce Demoranville, outgoing DWM president. And a host of state and local dignitaries.
Speeches, speeches, hereby proclamation, amazing singer, speeches, ‘nother musical interlude (equally amazing), speeches, poet, remarks, way cool shanty singers, and a brass band.
Ernestina Sea Chantey Chorus
Seriously, the opening ceremony included remarks from all manner of dignitaries from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, and Congressman William Keating to state and city legislators Mark Montigny, Antonio Cabral, and Joseph Lopes, Director James Russell of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, President Steve White of Mystic Seaport, keynote by historian and author Nathaniel Philbrick, a selection by New Bedford Poet Laureate Patricia Gomes, and musical selections by Candida Rose, Ana Vinagre, the Ernestina Sea Chanty Chorus, and the Concordia Brass Quintet. All of them celebrated the ship’s history and return visit to her original port at the same time they embrace her cultural impact and look forward to a bright future for the ship and the city.
One name missing from the printed program was (I think) Donald Tucker, whose father, Captain Claude Tucker, was tasked with looking after the Morgan during her transition from Col. Green’s estate in South Dartmouth to her installation at Mystic Seaport. Young Donald, who was nine years old when the Morgan left New Bedford last time and very happy to see her return this summer, presented the first of several celebratory proclamations during the opening event.
Descendants of Cape Verdean whalemen
The other thing that hit home with us was the diversity in the crowd of people whose heritage is so deeply entwined with the 19th century whaling industry. We focus so much on our own Yankee whalemen and the exotic ports they visited, that it’s easy to overlook their influence on people they met along the way. Sure, we all know whaling ships commonly visited the Azores, Pacific islands, and such places, and we’ve seen exotic names in the crew lists, but we don’t often stop to think about those people and how their lives were changed when the whalers came to town or how many of them came to America on whaling ships. Indeed, the changes made to the faces of New Bedford by this exchange of crew are event to this day with Portuguese and Cape Verdean names making up nearly half the city’s population. And they were out in en masse to welcome the Morgan home, including a group of Cape Verdeans whose forefathers were part of her crew. Among them were descendants of John Gonsalves, a Cape Verdean who served as master for the Morgan’s last whaling voyage.
It was heartening to see such a big crowd turn out for the Morgan’s return, some in period costumes that couldn’t have been comfortable in the summer heat. We heard something over 3,000 people turned up to visit her on Saturday morning. Standing back to let the crowd have the deck, we headed for lunch. Behind us in line at the hot dog stand was none other than Captain Kip Files–obviously we couldn’t let him buy his own meal (honestly, that’s all we intended, we didn’t mean to shanghai him, really!), and he ended up sitting down to eat with us. I would post the picture, but someone with a camera who will remain nameless got a shot with the captain stuffing a hot dog in his mouth and not particularly flattering to anybody else in the picture either, so we’ll just skip that one. Anyway, he’s a charming character, but more on the gallant captain a bit later.
In the afternoon, we wandered up the hill to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Lots to see there as we wandered through halls of scrimshaw, whale skeletons, and maritime paintings. Once again, we bumped into most of the senior ranks of the Mystic Seaport realm, apparently on a postman’s holiday, enhanced the general congeniality of the visit.
Robert Brown’s whale gun (center)
The thing I hadn’t anticipated (and probably should have), but was delighted to see in the corner of the hall that holds the scale Lagoda whaling ship was a case of early whaling guns, including one designed and patented in 1850 by our very own Captain Robert Brown. It was clearly heavier and longer than any of the others; I wonder if that means anything… There’s an observation deck on the upper floor of the museum, which provides a lovely view of the harbor. Unfortunately, buildings obscure the docks, but we could still make out trees on the Morgan beyond the exhibition hall on the pier, and in front of her New Bedford boats still comprise the largest fishing fleet in the country. Again, we come full circle.
A few blocks farther up the hill is the New Bedford Public Library where Bela Lyon Pratt’s memorial statue of a whaleman has stood poised with his harpoon in hand since 1912. It was bigger than I expected, and ever so reminiscent of our own Nelson Haley who stood likewise in the bow of a fragile boat aiming for leviathan.
Dinner on the rooftop of Slainte Irish Pub included traditional fish & chips and a Guinness with a fine view of the harbor. It doesn’t get much better than that. Being a few blocks farther south and closer to the waterfront meant our view of the Morgan was even better than the one from museum’s deck.
There are benches and a little patch of green designated as “Coast Guard Park” on the waterfront, and we thought that might be a good place to end the day. After dinner, we strolled around town in search of take-out coffee, which doesn’t seem like an outrageous idea, right? The first place we tried had coffee, but no take-out — a pizza place that doesn’t do take out, go figure! We strolled farther up the hill and paused to evaluate the gull campaigning for its own berth as a weathervane adjacent to the whaling museum. (I’d vote for it.)
The next coffee shop had closed at 5:00, so on we walked. Here’s a puzzle: the whaling voyage on which Herman Melville signed aboard Acushnet, a vessel named for the river at the foot of the hill, and sailed from this very city to find inspiration for what would become his greatest novel. The first mate of his mythical ship later provided the name for one of America’s best-known purveyors of take-out coffee. (Their company history makes no pretense at the source of the name.) And yet, however ubiquitous they may be everywhere else in the world, there is no Starbucks in New Bedford. How’d that happen? The city seems poised for a renaissance, with lots of classic old buildings just begging to be occupied. We decided Starbucks (the company) really ought to invest there, not only open a shop here, but fund some grants for restoring the old port area. Imagine the slogan: “Bring Starbucks Home!” (I’d buy it, and I’m not even a big fan of their coffee.) Ultimately, we found a Dunkin Donuts where the decaf was not up to their usual standard, and we were out of time to enjoy the waterfront park.
Sunday mornings tend to begin slowly, so we figured we’d use that to our advantage. Pier opened at 9 AM, so our first stop was a tour of the ship — not that we haven’t seen her many times during the past several-many-decades, but we hadn’t been aboard in New Bedford yet.
There was actually less to see on this tour than we were accustomed to, since so much of the ship was cordoned off to keep punters away from working rigging and crew quarters. The picture of Nelson and Charlotte Haley that always hung below on a bulkhead in the main cabin wasn’t there [insert Glynis Johns’s line from movie The Ref, “Why isn’t my portrait over the fireplace?”]. Nobody on board seemed to know who Haley was—clearly an oversight—but as long as they don’t sink the boat, I suppose we can forgive them.
A bit more time touring exhibits on the pier, Spouter, the inflatable whale, murals and various demonstration booths in the exhibition hall, and a few too many souvenirs? (Well, never enough, really.) On the pier, visitors could climb aboard a whaling boat and imagine their own Nantucket sleigh ride — imagine being key, as this boat was on a trailer. However, the rest of the ship’a boats were, indeed, in the water waiting to take imaginative souls with willing backs out on the water. The rides were free as long as you contributed muscle to the forward motion. Alas, timing didn’t work for us, but plenty of other folks took to the oars.
Next to the Morgan’s temporary berth on the state pier is home to Ernestina, a Gloucester schooner open for public tours and educational material about local fishing history. Built in 1894, Ernestina began life as Effie M. Morrissey, carrying fishermen to the North Atlantic after cod. Later she would explore the Arctic, venturing within 578 miles of the North Pole, still the farthest north any sailing vessel has ever been. She was purchased and moved to Cape Verde, working variously as a passenger and freight vessel, and ultimately returned to the U.S. in the late 1970s to take on a new role as a historic, educational, and goodwill ambassador.
Herman Melville’s pew in the Seamen’s Bethel
Eventually, it was time to head up hill again. We missed the service at the Seamen’s Bethel, but enjoyed touring the empty chapel anyway. A pew dedicated to Herman Melville (who really did attend a service here before he sailed away on Acushnet) is only one memento of the author’s visit. Despite the original pulpit being fairly ordinary, Melville’s impression was that “Its paneled front was in the likeness of a ship’s bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship’s fiddle-headed beak.” Faithful to the text, the chapel set for the 1956 movie starring Richard Basehart and Gregory Peck depicted the pulpit quite literally as the bow of a tiny ship and, in turn, sparked protests from tourists who expected to see it thus in the real chapel. Giving way to popular demand, the chapel curators rebuilt the pulpit in the movie’s image rather than perpetually explaining fictional overreach. It would seem Mr. Melville has much to answer for.
Checking out of the hotel, more chats in the lobby, we met Morgan stowaway, Ryan Leighton, who was headed out on a city tour with Sally Bullard. Here’s their story for the day: www.mysticseaport.org/stowaway/2014/06/29/the-man-behind-the-morgan/
Last event of the weekend was the annual luncheon of the Descendants of Whaling Masters (http://www.whalingmasters.org/) at the Wamsutta Club. Another great big Wow! Well, if you’re a whaling/family history nerd, this was definitely the place to be anyway. The Wamsutta Club began as one of those classic gentlemen’s clubs, a huge brick mansion in the heart of New Bedford, with commodious rooms and paneled walls where glass and textile magnates held court. It’s impressive, to say the least. Apparently, this was the best turnout the DWM has ever had for the annual luncheon, which comes as no surprise given the Morgan’s presence in town. The room was packed, and everyone in it had ancestors and interest in Yankee whaling. Our table included descendants of company owners, captains, and crews, including one woman who traces her descent to the Aquinnah people of Martha’s Vineyard (think “Tashtego”, the “Gay Head Indian” from Moby Dick). She told us an interesting story of tribe members who sailed away on whaling ships and settled in New Zealand. Again, we are confronted with the reality that it wasn’t just “Yankee” sailors whose lives were rearranged by the whaling industry. It seemed that we really ought to put her in touch with our friend the Kiwi filmmaker, and perhaps something interesting might come of their conversation.
The keynote for the luncheon was a chat with Kip Files, master of the Charles W. Morgan. Clearly the folks at Mystic knew what they were doing when they hired him. His talk was essentially an off-the-cuff storytelling of the elements that came together to make him a sailor: beginning with learning to row as a small child, the accompanying frustration that comes of being stuck downwind from where he wanted to go, and the startling realization that “Mothers can row!” (clearly struck a chord with this rowboat-owning mother). From there, he described the marvel finding whale teeth in a tumbled-down woodshed, moving from lake to ocean, and sailing bigger and bigger boats, including Victory Chimes and Elissa until he became one of a small handful of people who might be considered qualified to head a vessel whose like has passed from living knowledge. There simply are no living men who have sailed wooden whaling ships before him, and a ship dressed for museum display isn’t necessarily rigged properly for working sail. “You can read the manual for a Mack truck,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean you know how to drive one.” Fortunately, Captain Files had the wit to make it all work. Surprisingly, he said, the Morgan handles better than anybody expected her to. Perhaps she’s just happy to be at sea again, but the tubby old bark moved faster and maneuvered more spritely than her age and lines belie. On the other hand, it makes sense when you stop to think about it. This lucky old ship sailed the “wrong way” around Cape Horn a dozen times, often with half her crew starting the voyage as greenhands. She’d have to be well designed and well built to come back alive so many times, and 37 voyages over the course of an 80-year career was probably ample time to work the bugs out of her design. Clearly, Captain Files respects the Morgan’s working ability. He was thoroughly convinced that he could have sailed her through the hurricane gate and right up the dock in New Bedford just as she would have done a hundred years ago, but the insurance carrier wasn’t so sure … hmm, better not to press that luck. At least we finally got a respectable picture of him before it was time to head home.