Tour of the Charles W. Morgan Under Restoration

by Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards

About This Lecture

In July of 2012, while the Charles W. Morgan was under restoration at Mystic Seaport, Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards led a tour of the vessel for the  Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport. This recording and web presentation of the lecture were made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

To watch an interview with Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, visit Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards Interview.

1. Introduction

The Morgan was built in 1841, launched in July of 1841 and Melville's own whale ship the Acushnet was launched in December of 1840, so only seven months before. And Melville sailed on January 3, 1841 on its maiden voyage. So the Acushnet and the Morgan are almost exactly the same. They're both built in the same town, they're very similar. So even though the Morgan is the only whale ship left in the world, she's very much like the Acushnet but not very much like the Pequod. So I'll kind of tell you the differences between the Pequod and the Acushnet when were up there. I always think that it's great that if we only have one left that it should be like that. The other thing about the Morgan is that she's totally average. There's nothing strange about her. She was launched in 1841 when many, many whale ships were launched from New Bedford where most whale ships came from. She's average length. The only thing that's unusual is that she lasted. She whaled for eighty years until 1921 and she whaled so late that many whale ships had sort of died by that point, and she was kind of dying herself after 1921, but because she was there in New Bedford, there was starting to be a sense that we have to preserve this world. She lasted long enough - she was whaling late enough so that when they decided to preserve, there she was and that's why she didn't rot away like everybody else. Then we got her in 1941, she came to the museum in 1941 not looking much like this. She was really dilapidated. We have news reels of her coming up the river and it's fantastic to see, she just looks awful. In '41 she's put in a bed of sand and gravel and just sat there and something else happened in 1941 if anyone remembers. At the end of the war in ’45 they began to realize that people were coming to see her, and that sort of led to the whole explosion.

Mystic Seaport had been founded in 1929, but the big explosion in making Mystic Seaport what it is today has most to do with the Morgan in 1941. She was relaunched in 1973.

2. A Look at the Morgan from the Land

Let's go look at her from the front. So there's a lot of amazing things. It's the original keel. They did bore into the keel and discovered that they didn't have to replace any of the keel, that's astounding, that's from 1841, it still lasts. They thought they would have to replace more of the lower frames than they did; a lot of them were in really good shape. They had to replace a short section of the keelson. But most of that's original to 1841. So the part that was down low that was sitting in salt water her whole career is the stuff that's in good shape. You'll notice something about her, like she's kind of fat. Whale ships are not very attractive. We all love this ship; it's the most famous ship at the museum, there's passionate love for this ship but even if you love something you can admit that it's fat. She really is, she's a big tub. They used to say that they built whale ships by the mile and cut them off by the foot because they don't have much shape. That was because they had to be big and sturdy and get there and last for a two to five year voyage, they didn't have to be fast because the speed was in the whale boats. The whale ship would just get out there. You can see the frames; see how close together they are? The frames are like the ribs. They're partnered all the way through, the fact that they're so close together means that it was very sturdy but that also made her slow. There’s all kinds of different talks about the speeds at which she could go, but most of the time she was probably lumbering along at about three to five miles per hour. They worked on the frames and replaced the ceiling on the inside and now they're working on the planking on the inside. That noise you hear is caulking. So what they're doing is they caulk between the planks with first cotton batting kind of rolled out and then oakum, which is picked apart old rope which is kind of rolled into these long thin lines and impregnated with tar. The pieces of wood have a slight bevel cut into the top part of them so you can really jam the oakum down tight. Caulking is something that they would have had to do constantly and it's something that we have to always do. People are always having to caulk the ship. What we're trying to do is get the ship back in shape; she'll be launched in summer 2013 and then she'll sail in 2014.

The first thing they did, the ship had hogged, so that means that the ends had gone down. That happens on pretty much everything; the middle is a little more solid. So the first thing they had to do was to try and take some of the hog out of her; so they lifted up the ends. But they didn't want to take all of it out because they wanted to make sure that everything was still going to fit okay and not leak badly. When they take a piece out, they have to be really careful about which piece they take out. If they take a piece out to replace it or repair it, they have to make sure that everything else holds up so they can put it back.

He was just asking how long it took to get the hog out and it was a matter of months. It was really slow because they didn't want to force it.

3. The Lift Dock

Another interesting thing to see is this lift dock. It's pretty impressive. The back part of it is the lift dock so the middle part goes down and those big red things on both sides are both hoisting engines. So the center goes down and they push the Morgan in and then they lift it very slowly; it was amazing how slowly they lifted it, because the divers go down and they do all the propping and then they lift it really slowly just to make sure all the propping is correct. She came out of the water and then she was pushed onto this section where the cleaning was done; and there's like a trap underneath because in the old days we used to just clean it but now we have to contain it in case there's chemicals or anything in the paint that comes off. So it came onto here and it was actually just pulled onto here with one of these forklifts. The thing is so well designed that you just pull it up.

To move her sideways, all the little wheels can be propped up and then you just turn the wheel, you can kind of see how the railroad tracks go and then pushed her sideways. She moved actually very beautifully. The great thing about having this is that we could have other ships out. So for one winter we had both the Morgan out and the Conrad next to her. Which looked pretty cool down here but the museum was a little bleak. Then when the Conrad went back she had no mast, and the Morgan was out, and the Dunton, they had taken off all of her spars except for her lowermost, so we became Mystic Seaport: the Museum of Barges and the Sea. Now we're back up to ships.

So they installed the lift docks so that we could continue to work on the other ships, because we knew that this was going to be a big project. The last time this was done was in the early 1980s, I think it was '81 to '84. The average length of life for a wooden ship was about twenty-five years so the fact that the Morgan needs a major restoration every twenty-five years just fits totally with what you would expect. What's unusual is that she's still alive. They wouldn't expect a whale ship to last this long. I got to sail on her from Chubb's Wharf down to here.

4. On Board

Ok, well let's go on board. I'm hoping that you guys have had a chance to come and see the ship before. She of course looks very, very different because of the work that's being done on her. So much has been stripped, like where you're standing right there; that's where the carpenter's bench is. This is where the masts are, they don't look very dramatic right now with just this little stick coming up but you can see the size of the mast. Then some things aren't there. This is one of my favorite things because the whole purpose of these is that right here is a bolt and that bolt (we'll see it when we go into the hold) is holding a metal structure to keep everything together while stuff is moving in and out. It also has a rail so that they can move stuff back and forth, like huge timbers within the hold of the ship. But people were stumbling over this bolt so then they put the orange things with caution. I thought that was enough but people were still stumbling, so then they added this. So this is all so people don't stumble on these bolts. So there's nothing authentic about that.

This is the main hold down here and it's where the blubber would have been lowered so on American ships the cut out was always on the starboard side. Where that gangway is there was a piece that would fit in there and would be taken out when they're taking the blubber on. That's why we have the gangway on that side. The blubber would be lifted up from the yards on the mess, right up here and then lowered down below, cut into small pieces down below and then brought back up on deck, which may seem insane to you but you have to remember that the deck was full of stuff. So like I said, where you guys are was a carpenter's bench, there would be extra spars around, she had about one-hundred and fifty lines when she was fully rigged. There was not enough room. So they lowered the blubber down, cut it up into small pieces and then cooked it in the try works. I would encourage you to try to look into the try works, you can stand on anything on any side. They look a little rusty right now; they would not have been rusty at all. That's only because everything's going to get fixed up once we're finished with the work. They would have put the pieces of blubber into the try-pots and then underneath from this side over here there's doors and the little bits of blubber that didn't cook down would be skimmed off the top, they were called cracklings and then put in the fireplace. Melville talks about that irony of the whale cooking itself. They would start the fire with firewood but then they would keep it going with the cracklings because they just couldn't carry enough firewood to do that much heating. The reason that it's a higher part is that underneath this is what's called a goosepin and that's where water was stored. Underneath where this young lady is standing right now there's an opening and the water could be put in. So they would keep water from the try works sitting on the hot deck. When they were on their way home, there's a scene in Moby-Dick and you might have read about it in other places too; they would tear the try works apart. So they threw the bricks all over the side and that let them expose the deck, to make sure the deck was in good shape. You didn't want to go on your next voyage and find out that your deck was totally rotten and your try works fell down. Also the try works got pretty nasty and grimed up from all the work, so they would rebuild the try works every voyage. That was one of the jobs they would have some of the shore side industries included men who could build try works.

Then over here these are the bollards that the whale is attached to; so you can see it's kind of interesting that it's in the middle of the ship. There's one up forward and one back aft, but they're not right on the edge. That's because the whale weighs so much; the average whale is forty to sixty tons, and having that holding on the edge would just pull the edge of the rail off.  They had to come into the center like this. The average whale was forty to sixty tons and it was forty to sixty feet long and it produced forty to sixty barrels of whale oil. Of course there were bigger whales, eighty foot eighty barrel whales, hundred barrel whales, and once they got up to the bow head whales in the Northern Pacific, the whales had much more blubber on them so they produced a lot more oil, and this is kind of a rough average for most of whaling.

Our try-pots are probably original and for a long time there were try-pots everywhere. We used to have a lot of them around the museum because they're kind of interesting. One of the things we don't have here is whale lined tubs. It turned out that we only had one original whale tub and it was on display out on the shed. Needless to say, it's no longer out on that shed, it's protected. I contacted all the other major maritime museums: New Bedford has two, Nantucket has two but one of them they're wondering about the provenance of, Newport News doesn't have any original ones.  The Smithsonian doesn't have any original ones. That's because whale line tubs are kind of uninteresting to people, but a try-pot is kind of cool looking so those have lasted longer.

Let's move aft. So next to the mast here, these other two holes are bilge pumps and they go right down to the bottom and then the bilge pumps up on deck, it has a pump handle and then the water dumps up on deck. Can anyone imagine why that would be an advantage; having your bilge water dumping on deck? So they can see if there's any oil in the bilge. That way they know if one of the casks is leaking. Then they have to try to dig all around in the casks which are very tightly packed, trying to figure out which one is leaking, just putting your hands all around them to see if you can find the leak, that’s the scene in Moby-Dick where Queequeg goes down in the hold and that's the reason he's down there is that they've got a leaking cask. That's when he gets sick and thinks he's going to die. The other thing is that they also didn't have to have any through hole fittings to have it up here.

5. Mrs. Tinkham's Cabin, the Mizzen Mast, Galley and Storeroom

Back here is another one of those bollards to hold the whale. There was a little house that was built here that was on deck; it's actually down on the ground right now. It was used for Mrs. Tinkham, she was nineteen and married to Captain Tinkham, he was thirty-six. They went out to sea and she probably got seasick on their honeymoon trip, and she was seasick for like one and a half years. She never got better so he finally had to send her home. It was not a great success as a honeymoon. The marriage lasted but the honeymoon wasn't very good. Because they had this house they kept the house. If you read those things in the reader, Jamie Earl talks about this house. This was the house where he kept his toys and where he played. The house had been built at an earlier stage for Mrs. Tinkham but they just kept it so it was a great place for Jamie and was also a good sick bay. The reason that they had it was because Mrs. Tinkham could be on the deck and get some air but this side of the house was completely blank, and that's where they sailors stayed. So she got some privacy too. There are some nasty accounts in some of the journals where some of the sailors are trying to get a look at the captain's wife when she's undressed or something like that, so this was partly helping with that.

Here's the mizzen mast and this lets light and air down below. People are always asking us if glass was invented in the nineteenth century. They did indeed have glass, so this is over the officers’ quarters and it lets in light and air like I said and it's also got this on top to prevent stuff from breaking the glass. Although, once we were working aloft and we managed to drop something in such a way that we still broke the glass. This not only helps from breaking the glass from something falling aloft but also if a wave comes this will break the force of the wave and help to save the glass too. It's not fool proof but it can help with that as well.

I'll tell you about these spots and you can look at them as we walk down below. That's where the galley is. All the cooking was done in there. They would be cooking for from thirty to thirty-five men. She had thirty men at the beginning of her career, thirty-five men at the end of her career. They were mostly making big pots of salted meat and then they had hardtack, which were really hard biscuits, coffee. If you read the accounts that were in the reader, you see what Jay was eating. He was actually eating quite well, but he was a captain's son. The ordinary sailors are not beginning to eat that well. The cook is trying to produce it from in that spot. In Moby-Dick that's where Fleece is, Fleece is the black cook; he was an older black man. Actually, Melville's own cook was and older black man and that was very, very common on whale ships. If you read the account of the Essex, at the heart of the sea there's an older black man who’s working back here. For people of color, other people may go to sea as young men and then go on to another life, but for people of color their often weren't many other options. To stay on board ships when they were older and couldn't do all the work aloft they would become cooks. I've read a lot of mid-nineteenth century crew lists and you keep seeing that in the crew lists.

Behind it was a storeroom and that's where they would have just the food for the cooking. Back here the tiller and rudder situation is really interesting. The rudder is right there, you can kind of see the top of it and the tiller is a long tiller with a wheel mounted on it. They would turn the wheel and the tiller would move back and forth; so some people try to argue that the reason at some points in Moby-Dick that they're steering with the tiller and in other instances they were clearly steering from the wheel, he was trying to argue that it might have been set up like this. My argument is just that Melville totally forgot, because he makes all kinds of mistakes. When Bob and I were both graduate students one of the things we had to do was count the number of men individually designated in Moby-Dick and even though Melville tells you four times that there are thirty people on board, when you count all of the people that are individually designated there are actually forty-five. He just got carried away, he made more people. Then most of the time they sleep in hammocks; there's no reason that they should be sleeping in hammocks. People were sleeping on bunks on whale ships, although Melville's last ship had been a navy vessel in which there were sleeping in hammocks. But every once in a while they're sleeping in bunks on the Pequod, most of the time they're sleeping in hammocks. Then my favorite one, it's very unclear which leg. There are times when it's definitely pointing to the left leg, and times when it's definitely pointing to the right leg missing. Melville says in Billy Budd “Truth must have its ragged edges.” Moby-Dick has ragged edges.

When you go by, on the wall there are pictures, a drawing and a photo of that wheel situation so make sure you look at that. Then we'll all go into the main salon and we'll tightly pack ourselves around the table.

6. Below Decks

This is the captain's table and you can see that there's the light and air above and behind that is the captain's day cabin where he also could navigate. Right behind where Tom is the captain's own head. There are only three heads on board. One for the captain, one for the officers, one for everyone else. The other room right behind where Jamie is standing is the captain's bedroom and interestingly you can see how many walls there are. Starbuck considers taking the musket and shooting through that wall, going through the barrier of that wall and killing the captain and he ultimately can't. So the only person who breaks the barrier is Pip, who actually goes and lives in the captain's cabin. Pip is a black boy; in the scheme of the crew he's the most insignificant member and Ahab is this white male captain and they both break through, so that's kind of an interesting thing he's done. Another thing I like to point out here is that's where the stewards are that is where doughboy is and doughboy is the son of a bankrupt baker, and of course bakers are considered white, white flour, white aprons. Bankruptcy in the nineteenth century was often portrayed as bloodlessness, so he's seen as extremely pale. He's the son of a baker and a hospital nurse so he's white and white. He's called “doughboy” and he hangs out there terrified as they threaten to scalp him on this table and Degoux is so big that he has to sit on the floor. This is also where you have the two settings of where the officers eat and where the harpooners and Flask is so worried about having butter now that he's a third mate but he's afraid to ask to have enough time to eat, ever since he became third mate he's always hungry.

Now this room in here belongs to the first mate, and the first mate was often the other person who could navigate so there's a little desk in there. Interestingly on this ship, of the thirty-seven voyages the Morgan made, nine women came along and on two of them the women were actually listed as navigator. That's so interesting to me that they actually crossed into that all male worlds and were listed on the crew list as navigator.

Here would be the second and third mate and then the next cabin is the fourth and fifth mate; in Moby-Dick there is no fourth and fifth mate but there usually were the same number of mates as there were whale boats. The Morgan at the end of her career carried five boats, so five mates. Then the room after that is the boat steers or harpooners. On the right is where people like Doughboy or the cabin boy, the steward, the carpenter, the cooper, the blacksmith lived. So take a look around, when we go through the wall it's cut funny and that means that it used to be a solid wall with green paint.

I'll disabuse you right now of the thing that everybody believes, and that is that people were really short back then. The lowest beam in this section gets to five foot three, so I can walk with impunity. We actually know the average height of the whalemen because the crew lists exist. The average height for the men was five foot eight. The average height for American men today is five nine and the average height back then was five eight, only one inch shorter. They had to bend over in this section but they weren't in this section very often. There was a solid wall at each end, so they could go into the officers' area or into the fo’c’sle and that ladder didn't exist; they would get into this section with a rope ladder and they would only be in here to cut up the blubber. So if you can imagine what it was like with the deck all wet and bloody, greasy, and the ship's rolling when they're cutting up the blubber and they worked with these long machetes. Melville says “Toes were scarce among veteran blubber room men.” We've got electric light, they would have had the light of the hatches and that's about it.

7. The Hold

I actually got permission for us to go into the hold without hardhats, so we can go down. This is the hold. It doesn't look like it normally would because of course all of this platform stuff that you're walking on would not be here. You can see down to the bottom and it would have just been filled with casks. She carried about seventy-five thousand gallons of whale oil when she was full. That's one of the things I love because this is the original piece, and see how it's just worn away from the years of the casks. These parts there would be boards that would be set between them. That one is a new one that we've had to replace, but you can see what it would have been like. You can kind of see the frames here and then that crack there is just to let air flow between the frames because you have to have air circulation. When she's going back we'll actually have fans going in her because we're trying to do something that they weren't trying to do which is that we're trying to make a ship live. They were expecting the ship to live twenty to twenty-five years. We're trying to make the ship live forever, one-hundred and seventy years more.

The average whaling voyage was two to five years. It took roughly sixty whales to fill the Morgan. Her first voyage they got seventy-seven but they were small. Once the oil is rendered it will last and won't go bad.