Residents and leaders in New Bedford, Mass., hope the return of the 19th century Charles W. Morgan whaleship will signify a rebound for the town.
When the ship returned Wednesday to the harbor where it was launched 173 years ago, it carried the hopes of city leaders who want it to draw attention to New Bedford’s revival as a vibrant port.
They want to showcase their vision of the city as a leader in that most 21st-century of energy sources, offshore wind, and shed the image of a decrepit former mill town with high crime and unemployment rates.
“If you start with the presumption that the place is in tough shape, you can find evidence to support it, but there’s more than meets the eye,” Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell told the Boston Globe.
Mitchell is a New Bedford native and a descendant of fishermen who has spearheaded the effort to change the city’s fortunes — and its reputation — since he took office in 2012.
On Wednesday, Mitchell stood at the bow of the Charles W. Morgan and took in the crowds of onlookers along the shore as the whaler, accompanied by a five-cannon salute, glided beyond the hurricane barrier at the entrance to New Bedford’s port. People lined the harbor waiting for the vessel to dock.
It was the whaler’s first visit in seven decades, an absence that symbolized New Bedford’s 20th-century decline.
After its last whaling voyage in 1921, the Charles W. Morgan was preserved in nearby South Dartmouth by a private benefactor, but after his death it gradually fell into disrepair. When New Bedford was unable to fund repairs, it was towed to Mystic, Conn., in 1941.
The ship’s return voyage after 73 years, Mitchell said, can be seen as a turning point.
“We should celebrate our past,” he said. “But one of our vulnerabilities here is the tug of the nostalgia. This week we can finally come to terms with the loss of the Morgan.”
The whaler will be open for the public to board from Saturday through July 6 as the centerpiece for whaling-themed activities, concerts and fireworks.
The Charles W. Morgan is the last of an American whaling fleet that numbered more than 2,700 vessels. Built and launched in 1841, the Morgan is now America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat – only the USS Constitution is older.
Over an 80-year whaling career, the Morgan embarked on 37 voyages between 1841 and 1921, most lasting three years or more. Built for durability, not speed, she roamed every corner of the globe in her pursuit of whales. She is known as a “lucky ship,” having successfully navigated crushing Arctic ice, hungry cannibals, countless storms, Cape Horn roundings and, after she finished her whaling career, even the Hurricane of 1938.
The Morgan was launched on July 21, 1841 from the yard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She typically sailed with a crew of about 35, representing sailors from around the world. The whaleship measures 113 feet, with a 27-foot 6-inch beam and depth of hold of 17 feet 6 inches. Her main truck is 110 feet above the deck; fully-rigged, and she is capable of carrying approximately 13,000 square feet of sail. The huge try-pots used for converting blubber into whale oil are forward; below are the cramped quarters in which her officers and men lived.
After her whaling days ended in 1921, the Morgan was preserved by Whaling Enshrined, Inc. and exhibited at Colonel Edward H.R. Green’s estate at Round Hill in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, until 1941. In November of that year, the Morgan came to Mystic Seaport where she has since dominated the waterfront at Chubb’s Wharf.
The whaleship was designated a National Historic Landmark by order of the Secretary of the Interior in 1966, and she is also a recipient of the coveted World Ship Trust Award. Since her arrival at Mystic Seaport more than 20 million visitors have walked her decks. Where once she hunted and processed whales for profit, her purpose now is to tell an important part of our nation’s history and the lessons that history has for current generations.