Joseph Bement and the Charles W. Morgan - Littlefield, David W.

Log of Mystic Seaport, Vol. 45, no. 2 (Fall, 1993): 43-47.

Go to page:  

<< Previous    Page 2 of 5    Next >>


Although the whaling industry was in obvious decline after the war, the Wings continued to profit from both their outfitting and their vessel investments. Cheaper petroleum products and gas had taken most of the illumination market away from whale oils, but they were still in demand for tanning and industrial lubrication.

Increasingly, whalebone became the principal whale product. Light, flexible whalebone, or baleen, serves as a plankton strainer in the mouths of non-toothed whales. Growing from the upper jaw in long, feathery, densely packed plates, it was cut out and processed into corset stays and busks, parasol and umbrella frames, whips, fishing rods, bows, tongue scrapers, shoe horns, and many other domestic items. By the end of 1878 the price of whalebone reached $3.25 per pound, at which rate the average Arctic bowhead whale was worth $5,000 for its baleen alone. Clearly, Arctic whaling would be ever more important to the survival of the industry. 3

Whaleman's Shipping List and Merchants Transcript, 1868

In 1878 William R. Wing traveled across the continent to San Francisco to establish a West Coast base for the firm's Arctic whaling operations. For more than 30 years, Arctic whalers had been using the Hawaiian Islands as a base for refitting and shipping oil, but San Francisco had obvious advantages, including cheaper food and materials costs and better transportation links to the East Coast. The Wings continued to send their sperm whalers out of New Bedford, but they began to berth their Arctic whalebone whalers in San Francisco, eventually maintaining a fleet of five vessels there. After the poor returns of her last sperm whaling voyage, they decided that the Charles W. Morgan would join the San Francisco fleet at the end of her next voyage. 4

To prepare her for voyages into icy seas, New Bedford shipwrights thoroughly inspected and refastened the Morgan wherever necessary, and reinforced her lower deck beams with many new supporting knees. To resist the stress and chafe of ice, they attached 1 ½ inch oak sheathing to the bow, added a horizontal bracing called a set of pointers in the lower hold against the stem, and "filled in" the bow for ice. By October 1886 she was considered to be "in A No. 1 order." 5

A report in the local Whalemens Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript for 12 April 1887-six months after the Morgan's work-indicates that such alterations had become typical in the whaling fleet.

Improvements on whalers Bark Lagoda, fitting for sea at Hazard's Wharf, is to receive a hoisting engine, and her bows outside are being filled with solid timber even to the cutwater Outside of this wall be heavy plates of composition metal, so that she can do better work than an iron ship battling with ice.

The bark Triton (also a Wing vessel], which is now fitting for the North Pacific Ocean, is to have a hoisting engine.

Like the Lagoda and Triton, the Charles W Morgan was fitted with a steam-powered donkey engine during her preparations for Arctic whaling. As early as 1872, the Java had been outfitted with a steam engine for more efficient and speedy operation of the windlass when raising anchor and when hoisting aboard the massive blanket pieces of blubber and jaws full of baleen as a whale was cut in. On the strength of that example, such engines became relatively common in the fleet. Such engines did not make these vessels steam whalers, like the steam auxiliary barks then being built for whaling in the Western Arctic, but they did allow more efficient performance of heavy work on board. 6

The Wings laid out $1,225 to purchase the engine from Miller-Shaw of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Considering that the engine required coal to fire the boiler and an engineer and assistant to operate it, this was a substantial investment. And the engine added a new skill to the Morgan's crew requirements, which must be compensated with a lay higher than that of ordinary seamen. On the coming voyage the Wings would pay their engineer a 1/140 lay-only slightly higher than the cook's lay. On later voyages the carpenter, blacksmith, shipkeeper, or sailmaker would also act as engineer, commanding a lay comparable to that of a boatsteerer (harpooner), about 1/75 to 1/90. 7

As a mechanical addition to the crew, it is fitting that the steam engine was,

* Funding for digitization provided by: Mystic Seaport