Updated: Aug 22, 2021
This article first appeared in the Spring, 2013 issue of the Crow's Nest, written by Seth Mendell.
Launched from the shipyard of J. H. Holmes and Sons on April 16, 1878 for owners Gifford and Cummings of New Bedford, the bark Wanderer was a first class vessel in every aspect. To quote from the Whalman’s Shipping List dated April 26, “She is a vessel of beautiful model, and for completeness in every respect reflects credit on the skill of her builders and the liberality of her owners.” A year earlier in 1877 Arvin Cannon, master carpenter in the Holmes’ Yard had carefully drawn out the lines for the Wanderer’s hull in the loft over the Holmes Office on Water Street, as had been done for the many vessels built in the yard over the past sixty-six years.
Built of the finest materials, the Wanderer’s live oak keel stretched 100 feet up from the water’s edge in what is today’s Shipyard Park near where the gazebo is located. Skilled ship wrights fashioned her ribs, stem and stern post also of live oak and fastened them to the keel so that at this early stage of construction the hull of the Wanderer resembled a large fish on its back with its ribs sticking up into the air. Next in line were the plankers whose job it was to fasten long planks, some 40 feet in length, of yellow pine to the fifty or more ribs. These pine planks, like the live oak, had come up the eastern seaboard on schooners and sloops from the southern states. Each plank was held in place with long bronze spikes driven through the planks into the oak ribs.
With planking complete and the decks and bulkheads in place, the caulkers went to work to make the hull watertight. Balancing on scaffolding at times twenty-five feet above the ground and armed with caulking hammers and irons, these men drove seven miles of oakum and cotton into all the seams between the planking. The last major step in completing the Wanderer’s hull was the attaching of many pieces of copper sheathing to the hull below the waterline. Copper breathes so to speak, so that marine life and wood boring worms could not adhere to the bottom, thus extending the life of the vessel.
It is doubtful that anyone in Mattapoisett during the spring of 1878 had any idea that the Wanderer would be the last whaler built in the town, or any vessel for that matter. People were aware of the demise of the whaling industry due to petroleum, losses in the arctic and the Civil War. But Mattapoisett yards had built merchant ships as well as whalers for over a century and there would always be a market for these vessels, or so they thought. However, such was not the case. The first ironclad vessel slid down the ways in France in 1857 and only five years later during the Civil War the Monitor and the Merrimac clashed. Iron and steel were taking the place of wood and Mattapoisett yards had not positioned themselves to meet the change.
Standing in the stocks at the water’s edge, the Wanderer was a sight to behold. Beneath her bowsprit was a 6 foot gilded eagle carved by Henry “Carver” Purrington of Mattapoisett that glistened in the sunlight. Her topsides were painted black down to the waterline and a white strip at deck level showed off her lines “like a fitted dress on a beautiful woman.” She measured 116 feet from stem to stern with a beam of 271⁄2 feet and draft of 15 feet 8 inches. When fully rigged the extended bowsprit would add 50 feet to her length and her three masts would stand 125 feet above the deck. On land, waiting for launching, she dwarfed the surrounding buildings.
Ship launchings were always an exciting event and the advent of the Fairhaven Branch Railroad through Mattapoisett some twenty years earlier made it possible for a great number of people to witness a launching. Such was the case on April 16, 1878 late in the afternoon at the time of a full flood tide when men knocked away the last of the restraining blocks and bark Wanderer slid slowly at first and then rapidly down the greased ways into the water of the harbor.
Following the fitting out in New Bedford for a voyage to the South Atlantic, the Wanderer sailed June 4, 1878, under the command of Andrew Heyer. Returning after a four year voyage, she sailed again on August 29, 1882. This voyage did not end in New Bedford, but in San Francisco where her registry changed to that city and her whaling grounds became the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans. During the next eighteen years the bark Wanderer made eleven voyages, spent four years ‘frozen in” off Henschill Island in the Beaufort Sea, a year more in mothballs in San Francisco and several years employed as a cargo vessel during the Klondike gold rush in Alaska. However, the Wanderer’s whaling days were not over. Timothy Allen of New Bedford became her agent and in February 1903 the vessel left San Francisco on a whaling voyage around Cape Horn arriving in New Bedford in September 1904 after a twenty-two year absence.
During the next twenty years the Wanderer made eleven whaling voyages out of New Bedford for what was probably the more profitable period of her forty-six year career. These voyages were not without incident. On August 24, 1912, six hundred miles off the Barbados Islands a large bull sperm whale charged the bark. “Thought the whale was going to sink the ship for----he came for us head on, and we couldn’t get out of his way.” Later, the whale cut the 4th mates boat in half, killing one man and injuring another. The following day the whale was found floating dead and when cut in and tried out rendered one hundred barrels of oil. A very large whale!
The most successful voyage was during the First World War. Following four years at sea, the Wanderer returned to New Bedford in 1917 with a cargo of 6,200 barrels of oil possibly the largest number of barrels of oil in whaling history. However, inspite of this success, the Wanderer’s days were numbered. In the ensuing years, the price of sperm oil dropped to an all time low of 30 cents a gallon. The vessels owners fitted her out for one more voyage in the summer of 1924. On August 24th the steam tug J.T. Sherman towed the Wanderer out of New Bedford harbor into Buzzards Bay. There being only a light head wind, the bark was anchored just west of Mishaum Ledge bell bouy to await more favorable wind. Captain Edwards returned to port aboard the Sherman leaving first mate, Joseph Gomes and fourteen men on board.
With no weather service or weather radio, no one was aware of a large tropical system making its way up the eastern seaboard that would pass just south of Cape Cod. Such a storm track would bring a powerful northeast gale to the Buzzards Bay Area the following day. By 10AM August 25th very heavy squalls and gale force winds were battering the Wanderer from the Northeast. The anchor chain parted, and although a second anchor was dropped, the vessel was driven across the mouth of the Bay onto the treacherous rocks of the island of Cuttyhunk. With her bow held into the wind by the dragging second anchor, the Wanderer went onto the rocks stern first completely disabling the rudder and any chance of maneuvering the vessel. Due to her draft of nearly 16 feet, she grounded several hundred yards from shore. The crew immediately took to the boats, eight men in one and seven in the other. The eight man boat made right for the shore where Cuttyhunk residents helped pull them ashore through the high surf. The other boat somehow, in the high wind and waves got swept around the West end of Cuttyhunk and was rescued by the lightship Handkerchief off Sow and Pigs Ledge.
Wedged high on the rocks, the vessel was a total loss. Wreckers salvaged provisions, whaling gear, sails, boats, the figurehead and many other items before a second storm on September 30th completely broke up the hull. For a number of years following the disaster, the people of Cuttyhumk scowered the shoreline for pieces of the Wanderer’s hull to burn in their stoves and hearths to keep out the winter chill. The mizzen mast stood as a flag pole in Shipyard Park until 1964 when lightning brought it down. Today it hangs in the Carriage House of the Mattapoisett Museum.
This book is a descriptive narrative of the “Wanderer’s” voyages written by Frank Rezendes. Edited by Seth Mendell the 60-page booklet also includes an overview of the whaling industry (1750-1900) and of the major shipyards on the Mattapoisett waterfront (1812-1878). Also in the publication are thirty-five photographs of the “Wanderer” given to the Mattapoisett Museum by Brad and Priscilla Hathaway.
In November 2012, the Mattapoisett Museum received a section of the foremast from the whaling bark “Wanderer.” Given by the New Bedford Whaling Museum this artifact from the last whaling vessel built in Mattapoisett is an important addition to the Museum’s collection. The section of mast is in excellent condition with some of the original hardware still intact, as it was displayed in the Bourne Room of the Whaling Museum for eighty-six years before being placed outside due to extensive renovations and exhibit change in the building.