NEW HAVEN, Conn. – It survived countless storms and Confederate raids during the Civil War while taking crews across uncharted oceans in search of whales whose oil lit the world.
The Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last surviving wooden whaling ship and America’s oldest merchant ship, is hitting the water again after a nearly $7 million, 5-year restoration project at Mystic Seaport.
“She is, if you will, an authentic way to enter the past,” said Matthew Stackpole, the ship’s historian. “The Morgan makes 200 years of American maritime history come alive. It reflects really so much about the way this country developed. It’s absolutely thrilling to watch this ship come to life again.”
The 380-ton, 106-foot-long ship will be lowered into the Mystic River on July 21, the 172nd anniversary of the vessel’s original launch in New Bedford, Mass. Work will continue on the ship, which is expected to visit historic ports in New England next year, including those in Boston; New Bedford, Mass.; New London, Conn.; Newport, R.I.; Provincetown, Mass.; and Vineyard Haven, Mass.
The ship, a National Historic Landmark, made 37 voyages over 80 years starting in 1841 across every ocean in the world from the heyday to the waning days of whaling. It developed a reputation early on as a lucky ship, escaping the fate of other ships destroyed by storms and Confederate raids.
One of its crews was stranded in Russia after their boat was dragged by a whale and they lost the Morgan. By the time they got back to San Francisco, the crew members — who were presumed dead — got to read their own obituaries, Stackpole said.
The Morgan was among some 2,700 ships that hunted for whales for 200 years. Oil from whales played a crucial role in the early American economy and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, both as a lubricant and as profits from the industry were plowed into newly emerging manufacturing.
The ship offers modern-day lessons, Stackpole said.
“The quest for energy is a relevant story today as it was in her lifetime,” he said. “Her cargo today is history; it’s not oil anymore in all its multifaceted complicated aspects.”
Mystic acquired the ship in 1941 and since then, 20 million museum visitors have stepped foot on it. It has been restored before but nothing as extensive as the latest project, which involved 34 full-time workers and others.
The ship was hauled out of the water in 2008 and stabilized. Like many wooden ships, the Morgan had become misshapen with the center bending upward and the bow and stern dropping down.
Thousands of digital images were taken along with careful measurements to document the ship’s condition, and high-tech laser scanning created a 3-D model of the vessel. X-ray technology also was used to examine nail and spike fastenings to avoid any unnecessary intrusions.
One of the biggest challenges was finding wood for such an old ship that would replicate the material it was built with in 1841. Restorers were able to get large old oaks destroyed from hurricanes, including Katrina.
The Morgan’s tradition of luck was revived a few years ago when workers excavating the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston for a hospital discovered a stockpile of wood.
“This was old-growth timber that was selected by master shipbuilders in the age of wooden ships. It just doesn’t get much better,” said Quentin Snediker, the Mystic Seaport Shipyard director overseeing the project. “We’ve had some great strokes of luck. I think at the time I described it as manna from heaven.”
The restoration included replacing 80 percent of the framing below the water line, an inner ceiling with 70 planks as long as 42 feet and 174 planks on the outside and rebuilding the stern.
The restoration was able to keep 15 to 18 percent of the original wood. The rest is from the latest restoration and earlier efforts.
Snediker hailed the level of cooperation that made the project possible, noting that property owners along the Gulf Coast provided the wood despite coping with the devastation from the storm.
“There’s nothing I’d rather be doing with my time on the planet than working in this environment,” Snediker said.