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Last Wooden Whaler Being Fitted for Long-Ago ‘Voyage’ to the Cape

HARTFORD COURANT

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last. --Herman Melville, “Moby Dick"They find their clues in “Moby Dick,” in century-old grocery lists, in the oral histories of men now long dead.

Odd bits of wood and yellowing photographs have much to tell the team of shipwrights and historians outfitting the Charles W. Morgan for a voyage to Cape Horn, a trip she actually made many times during her long career as a working whale ship.

Named for her principal owner, a Quaker businessman, the Morgan was launched in New Bedford, Conn., 150 years ago, and managed--against astonishing odds--to survive the hardships of the whaling industry, its subsequent collapse, fire, hurricanes and time itself.

The Morgan is widely regarded as America’s last wooden whale ship, the last of a fleet that once numbered in the thousands.

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To celebrate its status, the Mystic Seaport Museum team has assembled many hundreds of pieces of gear, furnishings and clothing that the Morgan would have carried for a two-year, turn-of-the-century voyage to Cape Horn. The exhibit opened in June and will run indefinitely. “By completing the vessel in terms of the artifacts and gear (she would have had), it really gives people a better idea of what it was like,” says shipwright and model-maker Roger Hambidge, who has worked for 18 years on the Morgan and other ships in the museum’s collection.

Many of the vessels in the collection have what historians call a restoration date, a time in a ship’s history when, based on information gathered from research and knowledge of the era, the appearance of the vessel can be reliably re-created.

For this special exhibit, the members of the museum team--each an expert in some facet of maritime history or ship construction--worked to re-create, in as much detail as possible, the way the Morgan would have looked as she prepared to depart for her voyage in the early 1900s.

Working from old, dockside photographs of the Morgan and other whaling ships in New Bedford, the museum team has re-created--on Chubb’s Wharf in Mystic, a town about 40 miles east of New Haven, Conn.--the way barrels and other provisions were stacked on the dock before being taken aboard ship.

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“We’re approaching this as if the provisioning were ongoing,” says Quentin Snediker, maintenance supervisor for the Morgan and an expert on schooners.

Snediker has combed New England antique shows and flea markets for the food containers, agateware kitchen utensils, quilts, blankets and other domestic items that would have been aboard ship.

At the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, which has its headquarters in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, researchers found a 1911 bill of sale for foodstuffs sold by a local wholesale grocer to the Morgan. The list included 25 barrels of beef, at a cost of $12 per barrel, 288 pounds of butter, 44 pounds of tea and 300 pounds of coffee. The coffee cost 15 cents per pound.

From a list like that, and an 1874 document titled “General List of Provisions for a Cape Horn Voyage,” shipyard researchers learned what food would have been served on the captain’s table, in the mess shared by men like the cooper and the cook, and in the fo’c’sle (originally: forecastle), where crewmen ate from tin bowls held in their laps.

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Nancy d’Estang, research supervisor at Mystic Seaport’s restoration shipyard, found taped interviews of men who had served on the Morgan at the turn of the century, men such as Walter Bechtel, a seaman, and Julian Grace, a cook, and James Earle, whose father served as captain in the early 1900s.

From those and other oral histories, they were able to confirm many realities of the whaling industry and shipboard life, including the close quarters in which the seamen lived.

Until recently, the Morgan’s fo’c’sle had narrow bunks lining the curve of the bow. Seaman Bechtel’s oral history--he sailed aboard the Morgan in 1901-02--and a closer examination of the floor of the fo’c’sle showed, however, that at the turn of the century, there had been an additional bank of berths installed in the middle of this cramped, low-ceilinged space.

Here, on voyages that often lasted several years, 24 men ate and slept and spent their free hours.

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For help in re-creating the scene in the fo’c’sle, the Morgan team found a rich ore of information in a now out-of-print account called “The Yankee Whaler.”

In 1904, a young artist and writer named Clifford Ashley, on assignment for Harper’s Magazine, shipped out aboard the Bark Sunbeam, a whaler working out of New Bedford. Ashley’s descriptions of life on a whale ship have the detail of a photograph.

“The steerage that night was not an inviting place to sleep . . . The floor was littered with rubbish, the walls hung deep with clothing; squalid, congested, filthy; even the glamour of novelty could not disguise the wretchedness of the scene,” he wrote.

Though museum volunteers are re-creating a number of sea chests for the exhibit, the reality is that many of the seamen were so poor they came aboard with almost nothing, less even than Melville’s Ishmael, who had an old carpetbag containing just a few shirts.

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Pointing to a berth half-covered by a curtain of stained canvas, Snediker says the poorest of the seamen “had to scrounge for whatever they could get. We felt we should represent that.” Another berth has an old quilt casually thrown across it; on the quilt rests a red union suit.

The whalers used tin plates, but the captain and the mates dined off ironstone china in a small mess adjoining the captain’s quarters.

A photograph dated 1916 shows the captain’s sitting area furnished with a horsehair sofa and desk; the captain’s straw boater rests on the sofa.

Now painted a soft cream, which after paint analysis by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities shows was the color used at the turn of the century, the captain’s sitting room and tiny bedroom are furnished with antique clothes, books and domestic items that team members found at the Brimfield Antiques Show in Brimfield, Mass.

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Snediker, d’Estang and ship’s rigger Dean Seder shopped with a copy of the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue, and found its drawings of clothes, fabrics and other goods invaluable.

The team’s approach to the artifacts they select or re-create is conservative.

“We try to confirm everything from several sources,” says Hambidge.

In his capacity as a shipwright and draftsman, he researched the turn-of-the-century configuration of the upper deck and the rebuilding of the deck house, which had been removed during the 1920s for the filming of “Down to the Sea in Ships.” The new deck house even has--as did the original--an attached bin for the storage of fresh vegetables.

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When the Morgan was towed into Mystic in 1941, she bore the scars of 80 years as a working whale ship and nearly 20 years as a tourist attraction on a beach in South Dartmouth, Mass.

Though repairs were made during the interim years, a complete rebuilding of the ship was begun in the early ‘70s. The exhibit of the Cape Horn outfitting represents the “finishing details” on the ship’s total restoration, Snediker says.


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