The Charles W. Morgan

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Launched in 1841 at the Hillman Brothers Shipyard in New Bedford, MA., the bark Charles W. Morgan was a typical American whaler of her times. What sets her aside from all other whale ships is her longevity. She made 37 voyages made between 1841 and 1921 and is now the last wooden whaling ship in the world.  Charles Waln Morgan, the ship's namesake, was a businessman who owned or invested in several commercial ventures: a candleworks that produced high quality spermaceti candles, sperm oil for lighthouses, textile and paper mills, ironworks, coal mines, railroads, banks, insurance companies and land. In 1841 he managed 10 whalers, including the Charles W. Morgan.

Considered a "lucky" ship, the Morgan consistently earned $50,000 gross value for all but one of her voyages between 1841 and 1874. However, after 1874 she (and the whole fleet) earned significantly less as the whaling industry continued to decline, having peaked in about 1846.  Reasons for the decline included increased used of petroleum products as replacements for whale oil, the disruption caused by the Civil War, the Arctic whaling disasters of the 1870s, and a failure to modernize whaling technology.  In 1849, in an attempt to take advantage of the high price for ships as a result of the California gold rush, Morgan put the ship up for sale. 

The Charles W. Morgan hunted whales in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, from the Arctic to the Antartic.  Long voyages often required stops at various ports of call for resupply.  These stops brought interaction with the indigenous people of the Cape Verde Islands, Azores, Hawaii, and numerous other islands and ports around the globe.  Many Pacific Islanders (kanaka — a Hawaiian name for people) signed on whalers as replacements for crewmen, adding to the ships makeup of multiple races and ethnicities.  Other islanders resented the incursion by ships like the Morgan, and attacked them.  The Morgan escaped such an attack on her third voyage (1849-1853).

During the Civil War, Confederate raiders (notably the Shenandoah, Florida, and Alabama) captured and burned dozens of whalers.  Miraculously, the Charles W. Morgan had the good luck to avoid them.  She did have to carry additional insurance, however, because of "war risk." 

By the 1880s, sperm whales were in short supply, so ships like the Morgan increasingly hunted right and bowhead whales for their whalebone (baleen), which still had a strong market.  However, by the turn of the century, prices for whale oil continued to decline, and whalebone decreased in value as substitute products such as spring steel came into use, while the cost of hiring a crew rose because of the uncertainty of a profitable voyage.  The Morgan's whaling days seemed over by 1913 as she was laid up at Fairhaven.  However, in 1916, she was purchased, refitted, and sailed again in search of sperm whales and elephant seals (yet, before leaving, she took part in a movie titled Miss Petticoats).  After the United States entered World War I, the Morgan had to be careful to avoid German sea raiders and submarines.

The Charles W. Morgan cut in her last whale in 1921 during the 37th voyage.  Her whaling days over, the Morgan was used in two 1924 films, Down to the Sea in Ships and Java Head.  This could have been the end for the ship, but artist Harry Neyland helped to convince Colonel Edward H.R. Green to save the Morgan.  Green had a permanent berth prepared for her in the sand on his South Dartmouth estate.  The ship was refitted and became a popular tourist attraction until 1935, when it was discovered that, following his death, Green had left no money to maintain the ship.  It fell into disrepair, but was ultimately acquired by and moved to Mystic Seaport Museum in 1941, where she was restored to her former glory and remains to this day.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. What impacts did whaling vessels have on the cultures of indigenous peoples, i.e., Pacific islanders, Eskimos?
  2. What was baleen used for? What might have replaced it?
  3. Look at the front of the ship. Why would the Charles W. Morgan have a billet head instead of a figurehead?