My family had a chance to see the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in existence, at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut last weekend. We had been to New Hampshire to pick up Adelia, our oldest child, at camp, and made our way back to the New London ferry by way of a water park, a visit to the college I went to, an amusement park, the Mystic Aquarium, and the Seaport.
I did not think about the personal significance of the old hulk until we were there, but it dawned on me that the Morgan was about as close as my kids were going to get to the life that their East Hampton ancestors knew. And this is true not just for us, but for quite a number of South and North Fork families whose forebears went to distant seas as whalemen.
A son of Amagansett, Joshua B. Edwards, the kids’ great-great-great-grandfather, shipped out of Sag Harbor in 1850 aboard the Ontario. He did not return until April 1854. Later the same year, he sailed on the bark Oregon out of Greenport. Another voyage began aboard the Susan in 1857, and another on the Parana in 1860. His final trip, on the Jireh Perry, began in 1864. By December of that year, he saw icebergs off the south island of New Zealand, and was at Pitcairn Island in February 1865.
Exploring belowdecks on the Morgan, the girls were fascinated by the cramped sleeping quarters and impressed by the captain’s almost-posh accommodations by contrast. I told them that Joshua was a tall man by the standards of the day but that he, like the rest of the crews of which he was a part, had to cram into the bunks as best he could. It was clear that a four-year voyage on a ship like the Morgan was something well beyond their comprehension. They get fidgety on a four-hour car ride.
In all honesty, I think it is difficult for contemporary observers to really place themselves in the shoes of these whalers — the monotony, the lack of privacy, the dubious bathing options. Still, as the girls tromped around the ship, I could see sparks of understanding.
A photograph of the Morgan hangs in our house. It was taken by Joshua’s son Everett J. Edwards south of Noman’s Land, off Martha’s Vineyard, in August 1913. The Morgan was en route to Bedford, Mass., that day when it passed E.J.’s bunker steamer. In its holds were 3,000 barrels of sperm-whale oil, the oil of one right whale, and a quantity of ambergris. The ship made its last commercial whaling voyage in 1921, when, for the eastern United States, the pursuit of whales was beginning to fade into memory.
Today, the Morgan sits on dry land, a three-year, $5 million restoration ongoing, masts resting prone in the shipyard. I hope to take the kids to see it when it has been returned to the water.