Charles W. Morgan is an American whaling ship built in 1841. The ship harvested the blubber of whales for whale oil which was the primary fuel that American used for lighting. The shipped operated well into the 20th century.
Charles Morgan has served as a museum ship since the 1940s and is now an exhibit at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. The ship is the world’s oldest surviving merchant vessel, and the only surviving wooden whaling ship from the 19th century. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966
Charles Waln Morgan was a businessman who chose Jethro and Zachariah Hillman’s shipyard in New Bedford, Massachusetts to construct a new ship. The ship’s live oak keel was laid down in February 1841 and fastened together with copper bolts. The live oak bow and stern pieces were secured to the keel by an apron piece. The sturdy stern post was strengthened with hemlock root and white oak. Yellow pine shipped from North Carolina was used for the ship’s beams, and hemlock or hackmatack was used for the hanging knees.
Construction continued until April 19, 1841, when the workers went on strike, demanding a ten-hour workday. The strike gathered support until it encompassed the shipyard, the oil refineries, and the cooper shops; Morgan was appointed the chairman of the employers and given the task of resolving the strike. He opposed their demands, and a meeting with four master mechanics ended in failure. An agreement was reached on May 6 when the workers accepted a 10½ hour workday. Work resumed on the ship without incident and she was launched on July 21, 1841. The ship was registered as a caravel of 106 1⁄2 feet (32.5 m) in length, 27 feet 2 1⁄2 inches (8.293 m) inches in breadth, and 13 feet 7 1⁄4 inches (4.147 m) in depth. Her displacement was 314 gross tons.
Charles W. Morgan made 37 voyages in her 80 years of service ranging in length from nine months to five years. She brought home a total of 54,483 barrels of sperm whale oil and 152,934 pounds of whalebone. She sailed in the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans, surviving ice and snow storms. Her crew survived a cannibal attack in the South Pacific. She was, also, based in San Francisco between 1888 and 1904.
The ship had more than 1,000 whalemen of all races and nationalities in her lifetime. Her crew included sailors from Cape Verde, New Zealand, the Seychelles, Guadeloupe, and Norfolk Island. The ship’s crew averaged around 33 men per voyage. As with other whaleships in the 19th century, Charles W. Morgan was often home to the captain’s family. She was owned and managed by the J. & W. R. Wing Company of New Bedford.
The Charles Morgan arrived at Mystic Seaport in 1941. She is the only preserved 19th Century whaling ship in the world. In 1971, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Charles W. Morgan.
The ship was restored in 1968 which resulted in her being made seaworthy. Prior to the 1968 restoration, she had a wide white stripe on her sides painted with large black squares that resembled gun ports when viewed at a distance. This “camouflage” was often employed by 19th Century merchant ships to make them resemble warships so as to deter pirates and hostile navies.
During the summer of 2014, Charles W. Morgan sailed her 38th voyage on tour of New England seaports which included New London, Newport, Boston, and her home town of New Bedford. The ship is on display today in Mystic Seaport.
Micro-Mark and the mother company Scientific Models Incorporated (SMI) has sold models of the Charles Morgan for decades. Here is an SMI model from the 1970s: