She is the only one left.
The Charles W. Morgan is the last surviving wooden whale ship, and while she has rested at a shipyard in Mystic, Conn. since 1941, her Vineyard ties are long and as intricate as a clove hitch knot.
Built at a New Bedford shipyard that was owned by a Chilmark family, her first captain and many of the crew were from the Vineyard.
And now a Vineyarder is leading the fund-raising effort to restore the Charles W. Morgan.
Last week Matthew Stackpole, a longtime Islander, gave a presentation on the Morgan at the Sail Martha’s Vineyard office in Vineyard Haven. A resident of West Tisbury, Mr. Stackpole is in charge of raising the money for the restoration of the 106-foot ship, which first set sail on Sept. 6 from New Bedford 167 years ago.
About 60 people attended the talk. Mr. Stackpole is the former director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. He left the job at the end of last year and now works at Mystic Seaport. He is also a past president of Sail Martha’s Vineyard.
Built at a shipyard owned by Jethro and Zachariah Hillman of Chilmark, the Charles Morgan’s first captain was Thomas A. Norton of Edgartown; the first mate and many of the crew also were Vineyarders.
She was named for her principal owner, a Quaker whale merchant who was originally from Philadelphia but had married into a famous Nantucket whaling family. In 37 consecutive voyages, she survived Atlantic hurricanes, China Sea typhoons, a shipwreck on the coast of Siberia, fire at sea by mutineers and attacks by cannibals in the South Seas. She ended up at Mystic Seaport as a museum piece in 1941. She had at least seven Vineyard captains and made her owners wealthy. Her last captain was George Fred Tilton of Chilmark.
In the days of whaling United States mariners and whalers worked on 2,700 wooden whaling ships; these great ships made 14,864 documented voyages and traveled the world in pursuit of whale oil. The ships would be at sea from a few months to years.
Mr. Stackpole, who is 62, made his talk personal as well as informative. He said his association with Mystic Seaport — and the Morgan — began as a child, when his father moved the family from Nantucket to the seaside museum in 1953.
“When I was seven my father was hired as the curator at Mystic Seaport and we moved to Mystic to a house on the grounds of the museum. Our bedroom was upstairs. When I went to the window, what I saw was the Morgan. It was the first ship I ever climbed on, trying to keep up with my little brother,” he said.
In 1967 Mr. Stackpole’s father Edouard A. Stackpole, authored a book about the Charles W. Morgan.
Today, Mr. Stackpole said: “I am on a whaling voyage like our ancestors.” But unlike his whaling predecessors, he added: “I do come home on weekends, drawing laughter from the audience.”
He spoke about the value of the ship in American history, quoting nationally renowned historian David McCullough, a West Tisbury resident, and others.
He read the following passage from Joan Druett a New Zealand writer who wrote about whaling history: “As the sole surviving wooden whale ship, the Charles W. Morgan is a time capsule of immense value. It is critical that the ship be restored, not just as an unrivaled educational tool, but as a testament to a vital part of history of both the United States and oceanic world as a whole.”
The Morgan was at sea for 80 years, and Mr. Stackpole read off a list of Vineyard names that were associated with the whaling vessel: Athearn, Cleveland, Hawkins, Osborn, Ripley, Fisher, Jernegan, King, Marchant, Dunham, Look, Leighton, Luce, Manter, Gould and Smith.
When the ship left on her first voyage with Captain Thomas A. Norton in 1841, Mr. Stackpole said 17 of the crew of 31 were men from the Vineyard. That first trip lasted three years, three months and 27 days and was so profitable the captain never went to sea again, Mr. Stackpole said.
He also said S. Bailey Norton of Edgartown is Thomas Norton’s great-great nephew.
In an interview later, Mr. Stackpole spoke about his mission to save the whaling ship. He said the museum’s goal is to raise close to $5 million for an overhaul that will prepare her for another century. In November, the ship will come out of the water and three years of work will begin.
Most of the ship will be rebuilt from under the waterline to her keel. Though she won’t be refitted to sail, Mr. Stackpole said the goal is to renovate her to the point where Captain Norton would find her shipshape. The Morgan is the museum’s flagship.
“Mystic Seaport was started in 1929, the Morgan was the first major ship, arriving in 1941,” Mr. Stackpole said. “She represents the history of this country, though the whole collection of vessels, the Roann a fishing boat [which also has a Vineyard connection], the fishing schooner Dutton and tall ship Joseph Conrad and 450 crafts covering the history of the country.”
Mr. Stackpole has been traveling about to promote the cause.
In July the museum sent him to San Francisco for a reception aboard the Coast Guard bark Eagle. The Morgan spent 18 years whaling out of San Francisco.
He has also given presentations on Nantucket and in Larchmont, N.Y. In July he gave a presentation at the Edgartown Yacht Club, where more than a century ago, Osborn’s Wharf was the first and last stop for many Edgartown whale ships.
In his book, Edouard Stackpole wrote: “Over the century and a quarter span of the Morgan’s life, there is much to contemplate — her narrow escapes during her active life and from disaster in old age, and not the least in her history, her restoration at the hands of shipwrights using the same tools of her original construction — all a continuing story.
“The Morgan rises proudly in her Mystic Seaport setting, a unique exhibit of our maritime history, a history that had so much to do with our origins of freedom. But she is far more than that, she is an educational stimulus for the person who recognizes that America’s future depends far more upon individual character than upon the mechanics of scientific advance. She is a sturdy text for the soul-searching that underlies the maintenance of our moral capacities as American citizens.”
Contributions to the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan can be sent to Mystic Seaport, P.O. Box 6000, Mystic, CT, 06355. Please make a notation directing the contribution to the Charles W. Morgan restoration project.