History of the Charles W. Morgan

Built in 1841 at Hillman Brothers shipyard in New Bedford, the Charles W. Morgan will once more sail up the Acushnet River for a 9-day homecoming visit from June 28 through July 6. Its cruise to several New England ports will be nothing short of spectacular.

The 172-year old wooden whale ship’s return to seaworthiness is the result of a 5-year comprehensive restoration as daunting as any historic preservation project in American history. Development of innovative techniques to understand more fully the shipwrights’ methods have added new insight to 19th century marine architecture and the building process.

The ship’s new life at Mystic would not have been possible without prior preservation efforts in New Bedford and Dartmouth. In the early 1920s, artist Harry Neyland, principal shareholder of the vessel was racing against time to keep it afloat. With the wreck of the Wanderer at Cuttyhunk in August 1924, the Charles W. Morgan became the world’s last wooden whaleship. Two months later, when Neyland offered to give it to the City of New Bedford and was told “that the city [was] not warranted in going to the great expense necessary to take over the bark Morgan,” he turned next to Col. Edward Howland Robinson Green, whose grandfather Edward Mott Robinson owned the ship for a period in its heyday. 

Green said yes, to the relief of Neyland and the 33 other local shareholders who had incorporated as Whaling Enshrined, which included four presidents of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Green’s rescue and berthing of the ship at his South Dartmouth estate, Round Hill, began an extended period of preservation and public access which attracted thousands, and for which he was made an honorary member of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society in 1924.

photograph of C.W.Morgan at Round Hill

The Charles W. Morgan berthed at Col. Green's South Dartmouth estate.
Accession # 2000.100.86.139

During Col. Green’s restoration of the Morgan he asked Charles Beetle to build a whaleboat for the ship as his father had done many years before.  The last Beetle whaleboat was built by Charles in 1933 for the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, VA.  This whaleboat would become significant later, as its lines and construction plans became part of the Mystic Seaport plan collection in 1973, and will rejoin with the Charles W. Morgan in the summer of 2014.

But Green’s death in 1936 marked another period of uncertainty. With no provision for it in the colonel’s will, funding and the ship’s next berth became an urgent matter. Again, Whaling Enshrined turned to New Bedford, hoping the ship could be displayed at Pope’s Island and estimated that $40,000 was needed to do the job. It was a formable goal for a textile city still reeling from the Great Depression and the Hurricane of 1938; however, the “Morgan Fund” was started and gained early momentum. In March 1940 the fund had grown to $12,370; by late April it was $17,313. But as contributions slowed, the clock continued to tick on the ship’s deteriorating condition.

Whaling Enshrined entered into negotiations with Carl Cutler, a founder of Mystic Seaport. Ship historian John F. Leavitt, wrote, “Much as the owners and many New Bedford people hated to see her leave, they finally realized that the necessary funds could not be raised there, and rather than see her disintegrate, they agreed to let her go to Mystic.”

In 1941, the Morgan was towed from Round Hill and docked in Union Wharf, Fairhaven, before beginning its journey to Mystic five days later. Since its departure from Union Wharf, there have been many opinions about local efforts to keep the ship. However, one undeniable fact of history stands above all else: Mystic Seaport kept its promise to the people of greater New Bedford – to preserve, interpret and celebrate this remarkable vessel. Decades of work and millions of dollars demonstrate that its 72-year old pledge has been steadfastly maintained.

A new logbook is opening. In committing the ship to a historic 38th voyage, Mystic Seaport’s stewardship and vision for this luckiest of ships shows the world that the Charles W. Morgan belongs to all of America.

Last modified: February 17, 2014