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Charles W. Morgan - The Last Wooden Whaler

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

The Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving American wooden whaling ship, was commissioned by Charles Wahn Morgan and built at Jethro and Zachariah Hillman’s shipyard in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The oak keel was laid in February of 1841. Construction moved along until April 19, 1841 when the workers went on strike demanding a ten hour work day. Initial meetings between the workers and Charles Morgan, who had been appointed chairman of the employers with the task of ending the strike, all ended in failure. It was not until May 6 that an agreement was reached to have a ten and one half hour work day and work resumed on the Morgan.

On July 21, 1841, the Charles W. Morgan was launched. She was registered as a carvel with a 113 feet long deck, a beam of 27 feet 6 inches, with a 17 foot 6 inch depth, and weighing 351 tons. It took 31 men to build her and cost $26,877, not including the $25,977 it took to outfit her at Rotch’s Wharf for her first voyage. She carried 4 whaleboats, had a crew of between 30 to 36 men, had a sail capacity of over 13,00 square feet and her cruising speeds could reach over 9 knots.

Captain Thomas Norton sailed the Charles W. Morgan on her first voyage. He headed the Morgan to towards the Azores, stopping at Horta to gather supplies before crossing the Atlantic, passing Cape Horn and heading north. On December 13, the whaleboats were launched and the men harpooned and killed their first whale which produced 17 barrels of oil. The Morgan continued on to Callau, the Galapagos Islands and the Kodiak Grounds before sailing home on August 18, 1842. During this first voyage the Morgan killed and tried out 59 whales for 1600 barrels of sperm oil, 800 barrels of right whale oil and 5 tons of whale bone, netting a total profit of over $53,000.

In the course of the Charles W. Morgan’s 37 voyages, she sailed all over the world, bringing in 54,483 barrels of whale oil and 152, 934 pounds of whale bone. She had more than 1500 sailors from over 50 countries working hard to make her profitable during her career. The Morgan was known as a lucky ship. During her 37 voyages, she survived Arctic ice, countless storms, a cannibal attack, rescued a crewman from a burning ship and took on 5 Russian convicts who had escaped a forced labor camp, all while consistently returning from voyages with a healthy profit for her owners.

Between 1888 and 1904 the Charles W. Morgan was based in San Francisco, returning to New Bedford for the twilight of her whaling career, and retiring from whaling in 1921. She had a brief movie career starring in such movies as Miss Petticoat, Down to the Sea in Ships, and Java Head. Unfortunately, on June 30, 1924, the Sankaty, a steamer docked in New Bedford caught fire, broke from her moorings and drifted across the river into the Morgan who was docked at Union Wharf in Fairhaven. The Fairhaven firemen managed to save her, but she needed restoration.

August of 1924 had the Wanderer wrecking off of Cuttyhunk leaving the Charles W. Morgan as the last wooden whaleship. Harry Neyland, principal shareholder of the vessel, along with 33 other local shareholders incorporated as Whaling Enshrined with the goal of saving the Morgan. They turned first to the City of New Bedford which was unable to justify the expense, and then to Colonel Edward Howland Robinson Green, whose grandfather had once been an owner of the Morgan, to save the ship. Green said yes and the Morgan was moved to her new berth at Green’s Round Hill estate in South Dartmouth where she underwent restoration under Captain George Fred Tilton. The Morgan was then opened to the public with thousands coming to view this last wooden whaler.

Upon the death of Colonel Green in 1936, questions arose about the Morgan’s funding and next berth. Again, Whaling Enshrined sought help from the City of New Bedford to raise $40,000 to bring the Morgan to Pope’s Island for display. But the Great Depression and the Hurricane of 1938 (which included a damaged hull and torn sails for the Morgan), slowed contributions and by April 1940, only $17,313 had been raised.

Whaling Enshrined entered negotiations with Carl Cutlter, a founder of the Marine Historical Association- now Mystic Seaport, and in 1941 the Marine Historical Association purchased the Charles W. Morgan. Frank Taylor of Taylor Marine Construction in Fairhaven had to dig the Morgan from her berth, dredge a channel for her to pass through and do some caulking in order to tow the century old hull from Round Hill to the old berth in Fairhaven where preparations and repairs needed to be completed before the Morgan’s trip to Mystic, Connecticut.

On November 5, 1941, the Charles W. Morgan departed Union Wharf for Connecticut, mooring at Mystic Seaport on November 8, 1941. History was made during the summer of 2014 when Mystic Seaport Museum took the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world back to sea. Following a five-year restoration, the Charles W. Morgan sailed on her 38th Voyage to New England ports-of-call, raising awareness of America’s maritime heritage and calling attention to issues of ocean sustainability and conservation.

(Photos of the Charles W. Morgan by Cindy Turse at the Wooden Boat show in Mystic, CT.)

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This article originally appeared in our 2014 newsletter, A View from the Crow's Nest.

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