Home Arts and Leisure The Extraordinary Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan

The Extraordinary Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan

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In 1916, a 72-year-old sea captain named Benjamin Cleveland decided to take a 75-year-old wooden vessel on one last voyage.  So Cleveland, of Martha’s Vineyard, bought the Charles W. Morgan, a square-rigged whaleship laid up in dry dock for the past three years.

Cleveland was a skillful whaler, according to his New York Times obituary on June 22, 1925. He set records for the amounts of whale oil he brought to port. Cleveland had also sailed to Antarctica for the American Museum of Natural History to collect flora and fauna.

Whaling had pretty much ended by the time Cleveland decided to take his victory lap.  But instead of whales, Cleveland said he would hunt elephant seals on the edge of the Antarctic Sea.

Mariners knew the Charles W. Morgan as a lucky ship. Nevertheless, Cleveland had a hard time convincing investors that her luck would hold.

Cleveland’s story turned out to be a good one. But it was just one chapter in the amazing saga of the Charles W. Morgan.

Charles W. Morgan

In 1841, the Charles W. Morgan began prowling nearly every watery corner of the world for whales. She sailed to the Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific, the China Seas, the Sea of Okhotsk, the South Atlantic, the shores of Africa and South America, the ports of Valparaíso, Honolulu, Rio de Janeiro.

But she also traveled through time, playing a part in the Golden Age of Whaling, the growth of railroads, the rise of organized labor and the colonial revival. She sailed, unscathed, through two wars, and sat by a cradle of radar development during a third. She even starred in several Hollywood films.

Today it’s hard to imagine the size and impact of the U.S. whaling industry when the Morgan set out to sea. At its peak, the business of hunting whales went on mostly in two Massachusetts towns, Nantucket and New Bedford.  Together they created the fifth-largest sector of the U.S. economy. In 1846, the U.S. whaling fleet numbered 640 ships, more than the rest of the world put together and tripled.

From whale carcasses came oil for illuminants and lubricants, ambergris for perfumes and baleen for umbrellas and corset stays. Even the whale’s teeth were used for chess pieces and piano keys.

Whale products

Over 80 years the Charles W. Morgan crew killed more than 1,500 whales. They brought in at least 50,000 barrels of oil and 150,000 pounds of whalebone. The Morgan earned about $2 million for her owners, and only two of her 37 voyages failed to make a profit.

The Birth of the Charles W. Morgan

Jethro and Zachariah Hillman made ships that never leaked, people said. They were descendants of Peter Folger, an important early settler of Nantucket and Benjamin Franklin’s grandfather. In 1841, the brothers had taken over their family’s shipyard at the bottom of Maxfield Street in New Bedford.

They built the Charles W. Morgan of live oak and yellow pine and sheathed her in copper. She was a typical whaler with a round bow and square rigging. To scare off pirates, she had false gunports painted in black on her side. She cost $48,849.85, or about $282 million in today’s money.

A strike delayed her launch. Shipyard workers walked off the job because they wanted a 10-hour day. The strike lasted nearly a month, and in the end the workers got a 10-1/2 hour day.

Launch of the Charles W. Morgan

On July 21, 1841, half the town of New Bedford (population 12,000) watched the Charles W. Morgan slip down the ways into the harbor, at least according to her owner.

All went well with the Morgan’s launch. “This morning at 10 o’clock my elegant new ship was launched beautifully from Messrs. Hillman’s yard – and in the presence of about half the town and a great show of ladies,” wrote the real Charles W. Morgan.

The real Charles W. Morgan

Charles Wain Morgan, then a 45-year-old Quaker from Philadelphia, moved to New Bedford as a young man. He landed a job in his father-in-law’s whaling firm and made a fortune. Morgan and his family lived in a large mansion where the New Bedford High School now stands.

A fierce abolitionist, he apparently hired dozens of former slaves over two decades to give them a foothold in the thriving, multiracial seaport. One of his employees, Polly Johnson, married, bought a house and turned it into a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Johnsons boarded Frederick Douglass and his wife when they arrived in New Bedford.


Nathan and Mary (Polly_ Johnson houses, where Frederick and Anna Douglass first stayed in New Bedford.

The Charles W. Morgan Sets Sail

She set sail on Sept. 6, 1841, the dawn of the most profitable decade for whaling. Capt. Thomas Norton, 34, commanded the ship and its crew of 30 mariners—12 still teenagers, the youngest 15. Norton taught them sailing and navigation during the three-plus-year voyage. She returned on New Year’s Day, 1845, loaded with oil. Each crew member got a share of the profit. Cabin boys generally earned the least, around 1/300th. The captain got the most, 1/12 to 1/16. Norton earned nearly $11,000, so he retired from the sea, not yet 40.

Along with great wealth, whaling offered the thrill of the hunt and exotic islands to explore. But it was a disgusting, dangerous business. Someone usually died on a voyage and sometimes everyone perished.

Attacking a whale

Killing a whale meant months of cutting up the greasy carcass and boiling it in huge try pots on deck, setting off an inescapable stench.

“Everything is drenched with oil,” wrote a whaler named Charles Nordhoff in 1856. “Shirts and trowsers are dripping with the loathsome stuff. The pores of the skin seem to be filled with it. Feet, hands and hair, all are full. The biscuit you eat glistens with oil, and tastes as though just out of the blubber room….From this smell and taste of blubber, raw, boiling and burning, there is no relief or place of refuge.”

In 1864, Thomas Landers, one of the Morgan’s 21 captains, tried to persuade his young wife, Lydia, to join him on the voyage. He ordered a gimballed swinging berth in his sleeping quarters as an inducement. She actually went, perhaps because he promised her a trip to Hawaii.

Riches and Rags

In 1849, Morgan sold his interest in the whaleship to Edward Mott Robinson, a Quaker from Rhode Island who had also married into the whaling business.

Robinson foresaw the demise of the whaling industry and sold all his firm’s whaleships after the Civil War broke out. When he died, he left a fortune worth as much as $7.5 million to his only child, Hetty Green.

Hetty Green, The Witch of Wall Street

Hetty, known as the Witch of Wall Street, parlayed her inheritance into an estimated $100 million to $200 million. She invested in railroads, mines and mortgages.  Though her fortune rivaled that of the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, she lived in a series of small apartments near New York City with her two children. Hetty always wore an old black dress, bought broken cookies in bulk and once spent hours looking for a two-cent stamp. She said she lived liked that because of her Quaker upbringing.

The Wings Buy the Morgan

Hetty’s father sold the Charles W. Morgan around 1862 to the J. & W.R. Wing & Company, who made more money off whalemen than whales.

Joseph and William Ricketson Wing, another set of brothers from Southeastern Massachusetts, had started out in the dry goods business in New Bedford.

The Wing building in New Bedford

They outfitted sailors with clothing and supplies for their upcoming voyages and boarded them while they waited for the ship to leave. They typically sold on credit and charged exorbitant interest that the mariners would repay on their return. Some seamen lost money on their voyage if their share of the profit didn’t cover their debt.

Some of the Charles W. Morgan whalemen could barely repay the Wing brothers after one-five year voyage that ended in the summer of 1886. So even though the Wings didn’t make much from whale oil and baleen on that expedition, they made money on the sailors’ debts.

The Wing brothers increased their fleet even as whaling began to fade. They became the largest – and one of the last – whaling concerns, their last voyage ending in 1914.

Charles W. Morgan drying sails in dock, ca. 1927

The Morgan made 27 voyages for the Wings, her last in 1921 with an all-Cape Verdean crew and captain. The Wings then abandoned her in Fairhaven Harbor.

She rotted in there until 1924, when a one-legged playboy millionaire bought her.

Abandoned Ship

Hetty Green’s son, Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green, had agreed to head a group called “Whaling Enshrined,” which included Sally Bullard, a descendant of Charles W. Morgan. Green then bought the ship his grandfather once owned and brought the derelict vessel to his Round Hill estate in South Dartmouth, Mass. He also hung a whale penis in his entry hall.

Round Hill

Ned Green lost his leg after breaking it in a sledding accident. It had to be amputated because his mother waited to take him to a free clinic and gangrene set in.

Unlike his mother, he lived large and spent lavishly. Ned married a prostitute and had a fetish for collecting – coins, stamps, pornography, yachts, women. But he also had a passion for science and technology. He turned the Charles W. Morgan into a tourist attraction even as experiments in radar, radio transmission and atomic energy went on within a few hundred yards of her.

Ned Green (wearing glasses)

Ned Green built an airfield at Round Hill and let Charles Lindbergh land on it in 1932. He put MIT scientist Robert Van de Graaff into one of his airship hangars so he could build one of the first atom smashers. Green built an experimental radio station at Round Hill and allowed MIT researchers to conduct experiments in radar technology with it. The transmitters had so much power they followed Adm. Richard Byrd’s expedition to the Antarctic.

All the while tourists by the thousands visited the old whaleship. Green built a wharf and a replica whaling village on it. An old sea captain, George Fred Tilton, entertained visitors with stories of his seafaring adventures. He had once walked 3,000 miles to summon help for a whaling fleet caught in an ice pack off Point Barrow in Alaska.

When Ned Green died in 1936 , the Morgan faced an uncertain future. Then she almost faced no future at all when the 1938 hurricane nearly took her apart.


On Nov. 8, 1941, crowds lined the streets and docks of New London, Conn., much as they had 100 years earlier with the launch of the Morgan in New Bedford. A large banner proclaimed, “Mystic is the proud new home of the Charles W. Morgan — the last whaleship in the world.”

The Marine Historical Association had rescued the Morgan. Caulkers in South Dartmouth had plugged the leaks in the derelict whaleship, making her seaworthy enough to be towed to Connecticut. It was the tail end of the Colonial Revival era – and a month before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It would take years before the Morgan would return to her former glory.

Even during the war years, visitors came to see the Morgan. Over time, the Marine Historical Association acquired more waterfront structures and ships. In 1948, people started calling it the Mystic Seaport Museum.

The Morgan undergoing restoration

Preservationists at the museum’s shipyard caulked, painted and resheathed The Charles W. Morgan and then relaunched her in 1974. Then in 2008 another round of renovations began. It took five years to restore the ship originally built in the Hillman brothers’ shipyard in seven months.

In the summer of 2014, the Charles W. Morgan made her 38th voyage to the ports of New England: Boston, New Bedford, Newport, R.I., and New London, Conn.

Cleveland’s Last Voyage

In 1916, Benjamin Cleveland of West Tisbury, Mass., brought the Charles W. Morgan back into service for his own final voyage. But he had a hard time finding investors to back his plan to hunt elephant seals on Desolation Island.

He lucked out: A movie company wanted a ship it could use for a silent film called Miss Petticoats. Cleveland made the deal and enough money to outfit the Morgan for the voyage. (She made another film, Java Head, in Salem.)

Elephant seals

On Sept. 7, 1916, Cleveland set sail from New Bedford. Five months later, the Morgan completed its 11,000-mile journey to Desolation Island. For four months her crew killed elephant seals. One of her whaleboats capsized and four of its crew drowned.

The Morgan left the island loaded with 1,100 barrels of oil on May 12, 1917. But World War I had broken out, and a fleet of German U-boats was targeting merchant vessels. Cleveland decided to avoid the shipping lanes and headed for the West Indies, where he just missed a floating mine.

When the Charles W. Morgan finally sailed into New Bedford Harbor, 11 former whaling captains greeted her to a heroine’s welcome.

The Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport Museum.

End Notes

Images: Round Hill CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=219875. Elephant seals By user:CillanXC – Edit for WP: FPC., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3265623. Charles W. Morgan restoration By Rhvanwinkle at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15032245. Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Charles W. Morgan whaling ship, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2011630234/>. Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties By English Wikipedia user Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4384044. Charles W. Morgan drying sails, Drying sails, whaler CHARLES W. MORGAN in dock. , ca. 1927. Dec. 12. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002715974/.


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