One hundred and seventy-three years after it embarked on its maiden voyage, whaling vessel Charles W. Morgan, the oldest American commercial ship still afloat, is once again plying the coastlines of New England, this time ready to give locals a glimpse into what it was like to live onboard during whaling’s golden age.
In May 2014, the Charles W. Morgan set off from Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT, for the first time since she last pulled into that dock, back in November 1941, following an eighty-year long career on the high seas. From Mystic, she will spend her 38th voyage visiting New London, CT; Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard; New Bedford, MA (where she was constructed in 1841) and Boston, MA.
Along the way, the Morgan will bring along an entire dockside exhibition with live demonstrations, music and waterfront activities. Visitors will also have the chance to step aboard and tour the ship to learn about the Morgan’s storied past right from her deck—and storied it is.
The Charles W. Morgan, a wooden whaleship—today the only remaining of its kind—stretches 113 feet long and 27 feet wide. She was built fit to sail the globe—chasing whales through violent storms and even surviving an onboard fire, as well as close encounters with cannibals.
The Morgan became widely known as a lucky ship, not only because of the dangers through which she prevailed, but also because of how astoundingly profitable she was within whaling industry. Over the course of her 80-year career she earned nearly $1.4 million dollars, almost $20 million by today’s standards.
After she retired in 1921, Charles W. Morgan made a quick foray into the world of show business and was featured in the silent film Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) and in the British drama Java Head (1934), before Colonel Edward Howland Robinson Green bought her. Green worked to restore her and then docked her as an exhibition at his estate in South Dartmouth, MA until his death in 1936.
For the next several years the Charles W. Morgan withstood both abandonment and the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which struck the Long Island Sound area at a peak gust of 186 MPH and left 2,600 ships destroyed—but not the Morgan.
In 1941 the Mystic Seaport acquired the ship and transformed it into a floating historical exhibit. She was named a National Landmark in 1966 and has welcomed over 20 million visitors during her time in Mystic.
In 2008 the folks at Mystic Seaport realized the old girl was in dire need of a major facelift, and began a new phase of restoration to get the ship ocean-ready once again. Much of the five-year period of restoration that followed centered on renewing the ship’s hull, as well as work on its rigging and interior.
Captain Kip Files stepped up to the helm, making him the ship’s 22nd captain. Files owns and captains the 132-foot three-masted schooner and United States National Landmark Victory Chimes, and captains Elissa, a 207-foot barque owned by the Galveston Historical Foundation and Texas Seaport Museum.
What’s perhaps most special about the ship’s journey is that she’ll be returning home to New Bedford, MA, the same coastal town where she was born almost two centuries ago. Her stop in New Bedford is personal for local residents, many of whom are descendants of the ship’s original crewmembers. The City of New Bedford will be welcoming her with great fanfare over the course of a nine-day homecoming.
“The ties between the Morgan and New Bedford are profound,” said City of New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell. “We’re proud to host the Morgan, and even more proud to give residents and visitors an opportunity to celebrate New Bedford’s rich history as a thriving seaport.”
Festivities include a homecoming ceremony followed by an evening gala and the Buzzard’s Bay Swim on June 28; whaleboat races on June 29; a whaling history symposium from June 30-July 3; Fourth of July celebrations; the New Bedford Folk Festival on July 5 in New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park; and an official closing ceremony and bon voyage party on July 6. For more on the Morgan and her 38th voyage, visit Mystic Seaport.
Photo Credits: Mystic Seaport, New Bedford Whaling Historic National Park