November 1, 2012

Lucky Whaler

Restoring the Last American Whaling Ship

  • By: David Weible

The Charles W. Morgan is what you might call a lucky ship. Built in 1841, it survived 37 lengthy voyages (nearly six times the average), multiple trips around the globe, and an 80-year career of commercial whaling. It’s believed to be the oldest extant commercial vessel in the world. Of the more than 2,700 wooden American whaling ships built, it is the only one that remains.

“To be the last remaining of one’s kind, you have to be a little lucky,” says Steve White, president of Mystic Seaport, the unofficial national archive of maritime vessels, which acquired the National Historic
Landmark in 1941 and has been restoring and preserving it ever since.

Though saltwater helps preserve the ship’s wooden hull from below, over time, rain and snowmelt have inevitably seeped in. The current phase of restoration, which began in November 2008, is a five-year, $7 million project focusing mainly on the framing (ribs) and interior and exterior planking.

“Think about it as restoring a barn from the inside out, upside down, and not letting it fall apart all at the same time. It’s sort of a house of cards,” White says.

Still, one of the most difficult parts of the process has been obtaining materials that replicate the original fabric of the ship. Because the Seaport strives to replace all structural elements in kind, Quentin
Snediker, director of Mystic Seaport’s shipyard, has spent the past decade scouring U.S. forests for live oak and long-leaf pine trees large enough to supply timber that will match the planks originally used to
construct the Morgan.

But Snediker and his team aren’t merely concerned with preserving the ship itself. Mystic Seaport has many of the hand-written logs from voyages the Morgan took, including a list of names of each of the more than 1,000 crew members who worked its decks. The logs show that many workers used whaling voyages to emigrate from Portugal and the Pacific Islands. “Over the period of its operating history, it was very much witness to the diversity and the evolution of diversity in this country,” Snediker says.

If all goes according to plan, the Morgan will be relaunched in July 2013. The following year, it will embark on its 38th voyage, stopping at three historic whaling ports in New England, as well as Boston, where it will be stern to stern with the USS Constitution, the only ship in America older than the Morgan.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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