Into The Mystic

By Chris Landers

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. MorganVisitors 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."

A Living Museum

Mystic Seaport has grown into one of the largest maritime museums in the world, with a collection of more than 500 boats and 140 buildings, but the museum has its origins in the collection amassed by Carl Cutler. "He realized back in the '20s that here in Mystic, kids were playing with all kinds of models and documents, things that were in their grandparents' attics, and these things were being mishandled," White says. "If someplace didn't act and try to collect representatives of these great things, they'd be lost forever. He built an extraordinary collection. Our biggest challenge is how to be a really good steward for all this really great stuff."

Photo of the exterior of the whaleship Charles W MorganMystic's whaling ship, the last of her kind, will sail again in 2013.

Steve White became head of the museum in 2009, just as the collapse of the economy made it difficult to staff and run a museum the size of Mystic Seaport. Staff has been cut by a quarter, but the job of maintaining the museum's wooden boats has stayed the same, and White says the Morgan restoration, begun in 2008, will finish in 2013. It's an ambitious project, but perhaps no less ambitious than Mystic Seaport itself. Anyone who's owned a wooden boat can appreciate the difficulty of maintaining more than 500 of them, each a unique artifact. Add to that a collection of historic buildings still in active use and open to the public, then top it off with millions of documents and photographs, and you can get a picture of the challenges faced by White and his staff.

"Nothing [in the collection] is built of titanium," White says. "It's all built of things that perish, such as paper and wood. Taking care of it all is a weighty responsibility, not to mention the demands of the school groups and the visitors that come through." Visitors to Mystic — some 300,000 annually — come in several varieties. There are the scholars, for instance, whether their interests lie in the museum's research collection of books, journals, plans, or photographs housed in an historic mill building on the museum grounds, or in the more modern inquiries like the museum's collaboration with Williams College to provide a semester-long education on the history, science, and literature of the sea for undergraduates. For the younger visitor, there are summer-long sail training programs aboard the schooner Brilliant, a 61- foot Sparkman & Stephens-designed yacht built in 1932; or a summer camp aboard the Joseph Conrad, paired with small-boat sailing during the day.

Most of all, though, the museum is focused on the general public, what White refers to as "public history" — the task of engaging the casual visitor. That's what drives many of the museum's exhibits; this summer will feature a traveling exhibit on tattoos, and one called "Search for Speed." The restoration of the Morgan, which is being done at the museum's shipyard, is also open to the public. Visitors can watch as the massive frames and planks are shaped and fitted, and speak to interpreters and shipwrights.

Photo of Mystic Seaport at night

Thar She Blows!

The long-term plans for the Morgan include a trip to her former home in New Bedford, then out to Provincetown, Massachusetts. The goal is a trip to Stellwagen Bank off Massachusetts Bay, where whales continue to congregate. The Morgan will again search for whales, this time as a research vessel. White laughs a bit when he says, "Hopefully they won't recognize the scent, and take out centuries of frustration on her." In generations previous, White says, "she would've gone from our shipyard, where all the work is being done, back to the dock. And she would've looked wonderful with all the visitors walking across the deck. We would have declared victory and moved on. Instead, we're bringing her back to life, and taking her back to sea. The Charles W. Morgan, built in 1841, will sail again."

The Morgan may be a main attraction, but restoration projects on other smaller boats are ongoing, and fueled by a small army of volunteers who donate their time and skills to keeping the museum afloat. White says that in 2010, some 1,100 people gave 80,000 hours of their time to the museum. He speaks glowingly of a volunteer named Wayne Whalen from Cape May, New Jersey, who spends three days a month at Mystic, working to preserve a boat called Roann, one of the last survivors of a type of fishing vessel known as an eastern-rig dragger. When the Roann's Detroit V-12 engine needed a new engine block, Whalen contacted a Cape May shop that agreed to do the expensive repairs for free.

"There are countless stories like that," White says. "The passion and love for this place that you see in our volunteers and our staff, it's just one of a kind. That's what happens at Mystic Seaport, especially for those of us who are hopeless romantics. You just can't help it." 

— Published: June/July 2011

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.


Other Maritime Museums

Mystic Seaport may be the biggest maritime museum in the country, but not everybody can get to Mystic. The Council of American Maritime Museums has a comprehensive list, but here are a few that stand out.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

San Diego, California

Some people collect model ships, San Diego Maritime collects the real thing. The museum hosts a variety of ships, including the Californian (an 1847 revenue cutter), the San Salvador (the first European vessel to reach the West Coast), the Star of India (billed as the world's oldest active ship, built on the Isle of Man in 1863), and more modern craft like the San Diego Harbor Pilot, which guided ship traffic for nearly a century before being retired in 1996.

The Mariners' Museum

Newport News, Virginia

The museum's International Small Craft Collection, consisting of 150 boats from all over the world, is a high point for visitors and researchers alike. The museum is also home to the Monitor Center, featuring artifacts and eyewitness accounts from the U.S.S. Monitor, and an extensive collection of ship models and maritime art.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

San Francisco, California

Run by the National Park Service, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park tells the story of the Pacific Coast from square-rig to schooner to steam. Featuring 300-foot square-rigger Balclutha, the museum also pays tribute to the area's unique history with, for example, the Grace Quan, a San Francisco Bay shrimp junk modeled after a Chinese rig that was common on the bay in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


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