CT National Historic Landmark
Charles W. Morgan
This old whaling ship was built in 1841 and had a massively successful whaling career for 80 years. It has served as a museum ship since the 1940’s. It has been a National Historic Landmark since 1966. The entire Mystic Seaport living museum was built up around the Charles W. Morgan. I visited it as a kid in the early 1980’s. Every kid in southeast Connecticut has walked its deck. I visited again in 2007 when Damian and CTMQ were wee babies.
And then I sailed by it in 2014 on a wonderful Argia Mystic cruise.
And now I’ve decided to put this page together about the beautiful old ship in 2023. In other words, this page is 182 years in the making. Wow.
The Charles W. Morgan isn’t just a National Historic Landmark, but it’s also the world’s oldest surviving (non-wrecked) merchant vessel, the only surviving wooden whaling ship from the 19th century American merchant fleet (of an estimated 2,700 built), and the second oldest seaworthy vessel in the world – only the USS Constitution is older. Wow indeed.
Ships of this type were used to harvest the blubber of whales for whale oil which was commonly used in lamps back in the day. The Morgan made most of her 37 voyages in her 80 years of service from her home port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, ranging in length from nine months to five years. She brought home a total of 54,483 barrels of sperm and whale oil and 152,934 pounds of whalebone. She sailed in the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans, surviving ice and snow storms.
To tour the ship today is mesmerizing. The ship measures 106 feet, 11 inches length on deck with a beam measuring 27 feet, 9 inches. Its main truck on the mainmast is 110 feet above the deck; fully-rigged, and the ship carries 7,134 square feet of sail. The huge try-pots used for converting blubber into whale oil are still on deck. She’s in tip-top shape and it give visitors an almost romantic feeling of seafaring – until you see the bunkrooms. I wrote in 2007:
We doubled back and grabbed refreshments at the old timey tavern and the modern ice-cream stand. From there, we explored the Charles W. Morgan. Why blow me down! It’s the last wooden whaleship in the world. It’s pretty cool, too; you can explore all over the ship, down a level into the bunk rooms and the galley. There were whale blubber rooms and supply rooms. I simply can not imagine living on that thing for months at a time out at sea.
And some voyages were three, four, five years long! No thank you.
The Morgan is what it is today – and is the only one of its kind – through luck as much as anything else. Most of these wooden whalers burned at some point. The Morgan did too, but a nearby fire crew saved it in the 1920’s. Then its owner preserved it simply because he could. It was damaged in the 1939 New England Hurricane and survived a few trips through probate court. Then it survived a couple beachings and finally wound up in Mystic at what was then called the Marine Historical Association.
As I wrote, the Morgan was the centerpiece of what became the sprawling and massively impressive Mystic Seaport of today. Today, there are several other landmark ships who call Mystic home: the Emma C. Berry, L.A. Dunton, and Sabino. But I believe the Morgan is the only one commemorated on a US postage stamp:
The old ship has been under restoration more or less continuously since arriving in Mystic in 1941. In 1968 funds were secured to make her seaworthy again. During that project, the wide white stripes with large black painted squares were removed. This scheme resembled gun ports when viewed at a distance and was often employed by 19th century merchant ships to make them resemble warships so as to deter pirates and hostile navies.
Later, in 2010, Mystic Seaport engaged in a multimillion-dollar project to again restore the ship to seaworthy status. She was re-launched into the Mystic River on July 21, 2013, marking the 172nd anniversary of the vessel’s initial launch. During the summer of 2014, she sailed her 38th voyage on tour of New England seaports which included New London, Newport, Rhode Island, Boston, and her home town of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
There are a million things to see and do at Mystic. It is without question in the top three things to do in Connecticut for any out of state (or country) visitor. And the fact that there’s a “world’s oldest” here that you can tour is just the cherry on top.