Into The Mystic

By Chris Landers
Published: June/July 2011

Visitors to Mystic Seaport's recreated whaling village can be forgiven if they feel they've slipped back in time. The collection of historic buildings, gathered here from all over New England, offer a glimpse into the time of Melville, or more precisely, the time of whaling, when coastal New England drew Yankees and foreigners alike to risk their luck and lives against the seas and the leviathans underneath them. Vast fortunes were made here, or as Melville puts it, "they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea," and it was from here that ships set out for years at a time, many never to return.

Photo of the dock at Mystic Seaport Scene from the dock at Mystic Seaport.

Foreign visitors still flock to this village, and they're still greeted with sea chanteys and the ringing of the blacksmith's hammer. Merchants and craftsmen still ply their once crucial but now esoteric trades. If a visitor from, say, New York requires a new carving for the stem of their ship, it can be supplied. If a Japanese tourist wants to hire a rigger, or look into a hoop skirt for a sweetheart back home, those craftsmen are available to consult. If, on the other hand, you're afflicted with a damp, drizzly November in the soul, there's only one cure for that. Luckily it's nearby, in the aging timbers of the Charles W. Morgan, the last of New England's mighty whaling fleet, which will soon put out to sea again, after a hiatus of almost a century.

Fast Forward

As Steve White, Mystic Seaport's director, talks to BoatUS Magazine from his Connecticut office, he says he's being watched. "There's this great portrait in my office," White says. "It's one of those portraits that, no matter where you are in the room, the eyes are looking right at you. So Carl Cutler is looking at me right now."

As well he might. Cutler, one of the three founders of the Seaport in 1929, was also instrumental in the efforts to preserve and restore the Charles W. Morgan, the whale ship that has become the centerpiece of the museum. Under White's leadership, the museum is attempting something Cutler never tried — sending the Morgan back to sea. New Bedford-built in 1841, the Charles W. Morgan has had a remarkable career by any standard.

Photo of the interior of the whaler Charles W. Morgan Visitors can watch the restoration of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan.

The New York Times in 1900 reported a successful trip by the Morgan with this tidbit: "The only accident was when a 90-foot whale off the Japanese coast rose under a boat and shattered it, throwing the men in all directions, but no one was hurt. They got thirty-eight barrels of oil from this monster." But if the whaling was exciting, it was what happened to the Morgan after she stopped whaling that set her apart from the fleet.

Before America was dependent on the world's petroleum, the world was dependent on America's whale oil to light their way. During the 60 years the Morgan was active, kerosene supplanted whale oil as a lamp fuel, leaving boats like the Morgan, and towns like Mystic, with a rich past, but an uncertain future.

By 1921, the Morgan had come under the ownership of New Bedford marine artist Harry Neyland, who'd also owned the other remaining whale ship Wanderer. When Wanderer sank that year, the Morgan became the last of her kind. A wealthy local man joined with Neyland to form Whaling Enshrined, a group that oversaw the construction of a whaling museum with the Morgan as its centerpiece, and the boat remained moored in the sand in New Bedford until the corporation's money ran out. The ship was transferred to Cutler's museum in nearby Mystic, Connecticut, in 1941.

"Along her career, there have been many things that have happened that were fortunate for her survival," White says."She's known as a lucky ship."

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Visiting Mystic Seaport

Mystic Seaport is open year round. Summer hours (March-October, 9-5 daily). Tickets cost $24 for adults and $15 for children (17 and under). The museum's research collection is open to the public Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. The museum has limited docking facilities for visitors arriving by boat. Those lucky few who are successful in booking a place at the dock can witness the "whaling village" at night, when all the visitors are gone, and imagine a different time. Mystic hosts special events throughout the year, ranging from a wooden boat show at the end of June, to a celebration of New England clam chowder in October. Don't miss a marathon reading of Moby Dick at the end of July that includes an overnight stay aboard the Charles W. Morgan. www.mysticseaport.org.

 

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