A new career for an aging whaleship

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Flags and pennants flying in a stiff southerly breeze. The whaleship Charles W. Morgan is all dressed up at Chubb’s Wharf at the Mystic Seaport Museum in the 1950s.

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It was a new look for the old double-topsail bark. Brought to Mystic, Conn., in 1941 to be the centerpiece of a small, but growing maritime museum, the New Bedford, Mass.-built whaler was “launched” on a new career as a museum vessel. A half-century later, she is an American maritime icon, a National Historic Landmark, and Mystic Seaport is known worldwide.

It almost never happened. After 37 voyages and $1 million in earnings, the Morgan was retired in 1921. The 80-year-old ship, designed for an industry that didn’t exist anymore, was left at the wharf in New Bedford looking for work, its whaling days over. Hollywood provided roles in three pictures, including the 1922 release “Down to the Sea in Ships,” superstar-to-be Clara Bow’s first movie. In 1924, a burning steamer drifted into the Morgan, setting her ablaze. Severely damaged in the New England Hurricane of 1938, she was threatened with demolition.

That’s when the founders of Mystic Seaport Museum acquired the Morgan. They towed her with a tugboat from New Bedford and up the Mystic River to Chubb’s Wharf, where whalers had tied up a century before. The rest is history.

Now 168 years old, the Morgan needs work. A three-year, $5 million restoration has begun at the seaport’s Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard, which will shore up the hull below the waterline to the turn of the bilge and further stabilize the structure. This photograph, from the museum’s extensive collection of Charles W. Morgan images, was taken by the legendary yachtsman Carleton Mitchell, who was well-known for his photography. Visit www.mysticseaport.org for more on the Morgan.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.