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The History of the Charles W. Morgan Whaling Ship

If you're ever wandering through the Mystic Seaport Museum, which is a re-creation of an oceanfront village from the 1800s, you can't help but notice the massive whaling ship that docks there.

This boat is called the Charles W. Morgan, and it first launched on July 21, 1841, making it not only the oldest commercial ship that is still afloat in the United States but also the last wooden whaling ship remaining in the entire world.

Learning the incredible history of the Charles W. Morgan ship takes you back to a different time when whale oil was a significant commodity, and the industry drove a large portion of New England's economy.

Here's what you should know about the history of the Charles W. Morgan, which is a National Historic Landmark that you can board during your next stop in Mystic, Connecticut.

Photograph of the Charles W Morgan ship under sailAbout the Ship

As you approach the Charles W. Morgan, the first thing you'll notice it its size. Naturally, since sailors used whaling ships for hunting whales, they needed a lot of space, and the Morgan is nearly 107 feet long and over 27 feet wide. The boat also weighs 313.8 tons, has a depth of 17.6 feet, and carries over 7,000 feet of sail.

In addition to its size, the other notable feature of the Morgan is its longevity. The ship was part of a whaling fleet that was on the water for over 200 years, with more than 2,700 vessels. The Charles W. Morgan is the only boat remaining from those 2,700, showing its durability.

The Morgan didn't take it easy, either, making its way through Arctic ice and around Cape Horn, home to some of the world's most treacherous oceans. Even after the ship retired from active duty, it survived the Hurricane of 1938 that ripped through New England, destroying large sections of Rhode Island and Connecticut.

The Charles W. Morgan might have been a bit lucky, but its sturdiness to survive those conditions is undeniable.

Voyages of the Charles W. Morgan

The Charles W. Morgan was an active whaling ship for 80 years, so it makes sense that it would have numerous journeys. The ship's official numbers state that it took 37 voyages, with many of them lasting over three years in length.

Between 1841 and 1886, the ship operated out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, spending most of its time on the Pacific Ocean, after rounding Cape Horn, but also making trips to the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1887, Captain George A. Smith relocated the ship to San Francisco, where it would continue to operate in the Pacific and also make trips to the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk off the coast of Russia.

By 1906, the ship had returned to New Bedford, where it made shorter journeys into the Atlantic before moving to Provincetown on Cape Cod in 1918.

The ship's last official voyage, at least until modern times, left from Provincetown on September 9, 1920. It also sailed to from Fairhaven to New Bedford in 1925 and back to New Bedford in 1941, although those sailings were for relocation purposes.

Also, in 1941, the ship was towed to Mystic, where it remains to this day.

Preservation and Restoration

During the long life of the Charles W. Morgan, it has encountered some damage. In 1924, another ship caught fire and escaped its mooring lines, eventually crashing into the Morgan and lighting her on fire. Captain George Fred Tilton restored the boat, however, and it became an exhibit on the estate of Colonel Edward Howland Robinson Green.

The Hurricane of 1938 did even more damage to the ship's hull and sails. Unfortunately, no funding was available to restore the Morgan, so in 1941, the boat was towed to Mystic.

At that time, the Mystic Seaport Museum didn't exist, as it formed around the Charles W. Morgan. The restorations weren't complete, however, and the following years would see the ship returned to its former glory.

By 1966, the Charles W. Morgan had been added to the National Register of Historic Places but had remained sitting in a bed of sand in the Mystic River since 1941.

Finally, in 1968, the Mystic Seaport started the restoration process by taking steps to make the ship structurally sound. In 1974, the vessel was removed from its mud and sand berth and placed on a lift dock. During this time, the hull received repairs and some planking work made the boat seaworthy.

In 2008, the final stage of the restoration began with the removal of the boat from the water. Workers completed extensive work to the parts of the vessel that sit below the waterline. The ship was then placed back into the water on July 21, 2013.

Then, on May 17, 2014, something remarkable occurred, as the Charles W. Morgan embarked on its 38th voyage. While it wouldn't be hunting whales this time around, the ship went on a three-month journey and visited historic ports throughout New England.

The journey brought awareness to America's maritime history, making it a worthwhile voyage for such an old ship.

The Charles W. Morgan Today

The Charles W. Morgan is currently back at the Mystic Seaport Museum, and visitors to the park can board her and experience some history firsthand.

Keeping this ship in the water is a fantastic feat, and once you buy a home on the Connecticut Shoreline or South County, Rhode Island, you'll have the opportunity to get up close and personal to this living piece of American history.

Published July 21, 2021 in Local Information, Exploring Our Area