One day next week citizens of the Island will look out over Vineyard Sound and watch as a striking vestige of our whaling heritage passes by.
Whether the whaleship Charles W. Morgan will sail into Tisbury Wharf on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday depends, fittingly, on the seas. Her final ceremonial voyage completes a journey that began in 1841 when she set sail from New Bedford for the first time with a Vineyard captain and seventeen Island crew members aboard.
The Morgan is the only remaining wooden ship in a New England whaling fleet that once numbered more than two thousand five hundred. Out of service for nearly a century, she has been meticulously reconstructed for a final eighty-five-day tour under her own sail, after which she will retire permanently at Mystic Seaport.
The Morgan’s connections to the Vineyard are many and extend to the present with the pivotal role of Matthew Stackpole, a longtime West Tisbury resident who has served as ship’s historian for the restoration and wrote about it in the May-June issue of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Her first captain was Thomas Adams Norton of Edgartown, whose great-grandnephew S. Bailey Norton still lives in Edgartown, a few blocks away from the home Captain Norton built.
Whaling’s relationship to the Vineyard is similarly complex and long-lasting. Though the peak of the enterprise lasted little more than three decades, its legacy includes our grand churches and stately captains’ homes, keys to the industry that succeeded it: tourism.
In the few days that Charles W. Morgan is at port in Vineyard Haven, there will be time to explore the ship, imagine the mysteries it holds and reflect on the sharp twists of history that brought us so relatively quickly from whaling days to where we are today.