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Down to the Sea in Ships
by
Bob Brooke

 

As maritime museums go, Mystic Seaport is one of the best. Unlike Williamsburg which recreates 18th-century city life, Mystic Seaport isn’t a recreation but an actual seaside village assembled mostly from vintage buildings from all over New England on the grounds of a working shipyard from the 19th century. Here, staff members—historians, storytellers, craftspeople, and musicians—bring the 19th century seafaring village to life.



From the new main entrance exhibit building, you can take a leisurely walk along the quayside, stopping at buildings representing a number of different services needed by 19th-century seamen, as well as 19th-century homes.



Whaling Front and Center
The centerpiece of Mystic Seaport is the whaleship Charles W. Morgan which lies at anchor at Chubb’s Wharf, modeled after the granite wharves where it originally docked in New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of New England’s premier whaling seaports.

In the center of the wharf is a representation of an oil pen, where casks of whale oil would have been stored before processing. At the end of Chubb’s Wharf is a shed that houses the Museum’s Whaleboat Exhibit. Here, you’ll find a fully equipped whaleboat. The Museum built this structure, patterned after those on New Bedford's whaling wharves, in 1982. The whaleboat originally came to Mystic aboard the Charles W. Morgan in 1941. In it lay examples of the gear typically carried in American whaleboats of the 1880s. Notice the whaling tools displayed above the boat.

The Charles W. Morgan is the last of an American whaling fleet that numbered more than 2,700 vessels. Built and launched in 1841, the Morgan is now America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat—only the USS Constitution is older. Launched on July 21, 1841 from the yard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman in New Bedford, Massachusetts, she typically sailed with a crew of about 35. The huge try-pots used for converting blubber into whale oil sit forward. Down below are the cramped quarters in which her officers and men lived. Over an 80-year whaling career, the Morgan embarked on 37 voyages with most lasting three years or more. Built for durability, not speed, she roamed every corner of the globe in her pursuit of whales. She arrived at Mystic in November 1941. She has been lovingly restored to full sailing condition.



A row of marine trades shops and commercial buildings lines the quayside. Across from the whaleship Morgan stands the Mystic Bank, with the office of shipping merchant Thompson and Mason housed on the second floor. In the larger seaports, some merchants specialized in operating ships. They owned or chartered the vessels they operated, which either ran on a regular route between ports or else “tramped” around the oceans, carrying whatever cargo was available to wherever it had to go. Sometimes they purchased cargoes to ship, hoping to make a profit on their sale in another port. Otherwise, they sold space in their ships and collected freight money from the shippers based on the weight or volume of each owner’s part of the cargo. As immigration increased, some merchants specialized in shipping passengers.



Serving Ship Owners, Captains, and Sailors
Next to the Bank stands the cooperage, a shop where round wooden containers, now called barrels, were made. These were an essential article of life both at sea and ashore. Wooden containers made from staves and hoops served many storage purposes. Aboard ship they held provisions, various kinds of cargo and, on certain fishing and whaling vessels, the catch. The shop contains a hearth large enough to work in, a crane with a block and tackle and chine hooks, and a loft for storage. You can learn how to make barrels here.

A few doors up stands the shop of a 19th-century printer. Working at typecase and press, he was a vital force in the economic, intellectual, and spiritual development of New England’s seacoast communities. The Mystic Press, assembled to represent a newspaper and job printing shop of the time, contains the tools and technology of the journeyman printer’s trade. From shops like this, with their Wells and Washington presses, platen job presses, and Cranston cylinder press, came the almanacs, the newspapers, the books, and the handbills so important to the business, political, and social life of the community.

The rear of that same building houses the shipcarver’s shop. Figureheads and other carvings which decorated wooden ships in the Age of Sail are sometimes all that remain from the many vessels built in the 19th century. Carvings on a vessel were meant to show pride and to capture the public’s attention. Commercial vessels were required to have a name and the carvings frequently reflected that name. Choosing a name that a shipping customer would remember, and having a figurehead that reinforced that memory, was important to ship owners.The Mystic Seaport Ship Carver exhibit is meant to portray the shop of such an independent tradesman, and the staff who work in the exhibit carve nameboards, trailboards, figureheads, and sternboards for boats, as well as shop signs, tobacconists’ figures, and decorations meant for the home.

Next door to the printer’s shop is the hoopmaker’s shop. The hoop maker specialized in the manufacture of wooden mast hoops of assorted sizes which held the sail to the mast on fore-and-aft rigged vessels. Hoop making reached its peak as the fore-and-aft sailing rig proliferated in the mid-19th century, and flourished until World War II. Relatively few men practiced this craft even then, and consequently, exhibits such as this are rare.

And next to the hoopmaker’s shop stands the nautical instrument shop. Here the ships’ officers could purchase or have adjustments made to their precise and somewhat delicate navigational tools. To find their way at sea far from the sight of land, captains depended upon their quadrants and sextants, which they used to measure the angle between the horizon and a star or sun, as well as their marine chronometer and nautical charts and tables to determine their exact location on the watery world.

The shipsmith shop stands next to the nautical instrument shop, built at the head of Merrill’s Wharf in New Bedford by James D. Driggs in 1885. He, along with his partner, Joseph Dean, produced a variety of whaling tools—harpoons, cutting irons, ship’s fittings, etc. The Museum brought the shop to Mystic seaport in 1944 to compliment the whaleship Morgan. It’s the only maker of ironwork for the whaling industry that has survived.

Down at the end of the quayside stands the chandlery and sailmaker’s loft. Individual seamen as well as ships could obtain supplies from the ship chandlery. The chandler was a specialist in meeting the needs of his community, whether they were for whaling, shipping, fishing, or ship building. A ship’s agent was responsible for contracting for provisions at the chandlery. He managed supplies and equipment, as well as repairs, freight, towage, and the hiring of officers and crew. Chandlers offered salt fish and meat, hardtack, molasses, potatoes, onions and other winter vegetables, spices, and flour. Rum and tobacco were also in stock. Clothing, boots, and blankets were purchased for sailors who often bought them while at sea, and supplies for the ship itself ranged from navigational instruments to lanterns, buoys, logs, and inkstands. Needles, beeswax, and canvas were available for use in repairs aboard ship as well as for the sail maker at home. In addition, marine hardware, paints, oils, and compounds were available.



Charles Mallory operated the sailmaker’s loft above the chandlery. Mallory came to Mystic in 1816. He prospered as whaling and shipbuilding grew in the village and by the 1860s was one of Connecticut’s most prosperous ship owners. Beginning in the 1870s, ships’ designers supplied blueprints of the sail area to the chandler. Prior to that time, sailmakers made their own patterns. After measuring the masts and yards of the ship, the sailmaker made a paper pattern to scale, and then sketched in the outline on the floor of the loft. In order to have as much uninterrupted working space as possible, even the stove was suspended from the ceiling rather than have it sit on the floor.

After the canvas was cut to the pattern on the floor, it was sewn together and bolt rope was stitched on the edges. The chandler then added fittings for attaching the sail to the yard or mast. Helpers used a machine to stitch the pieces of cloth together but adding the bolt rope and fittings had to be done by hand. This sail loft was originally located downriver, but it was brought here by barge in 1951.

In a long low wooden building next to the chandlery is a 250-foot segment of the Plymouth Cordage Company’s ropewalk, built in 1824. The original building, located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was more than 1,000 feet long and contained three rope-making grounds. It was impossible for a sailing vessel to operate without rope, so this was of prime importance. Early on, ropemakers used hemp, but by the 1830s a fiber called manila, imported from the Philippines, became their preferred material. Here you can see a ropemaking demonstration on most days.

The fully rigged Danish naval training ship, Joseph Conrad, one of 16 historic vessels at Mystic Seaport, lies at anchor along the quayside just beyond the ropewalk. Built in 1882, she had an illustrious career with the Danish Navy before being retired and privately owned. She came to the Seaport in 1945. Beyond the ship at the end of the quayside stands a replica of the Brant Point Lighthouse. On the other side of the spit of land that juts into the Connecticut River are several seafood shacks.



Fishing was a big part of the local economy in the 19th century. Here you’ll find the salmon and lobster shacks, where lobsterman prepared their traps and salmon fishermen sorted their catches, and the oyster house which came from New Haven, once the largest oyster distribution center in New England.

Saving Sailors’ Lives
During the 19th century, few sailors knew how to swim and shipwrecks were numerous.
Across from the lobster shack stands the New Shoreham Lifesaving Station, built in 1874, and one of the last survivors of the Atlantic seaboard stations built to government specifications from Maine to Florida. The building faces inland, as it did in Old Harbor, so that the large doors are accessible to the town roads when moving the surfboat or beach cart. The boatroom has original gear for the two most common methods of rescue: the breeches buoy (see below) and the surfboat. The messroom has representative equipment used by the seven men who manned this station eight months a year. The upstairs area contained the sleep and storage rooms but will not be set up as an exhibit because of access considerations. It was in use for about 16 years in Old Harbor on Block Island, Rhode Island. In July 1968, it was brought to Mystic Seaport by barge in exchange for a reproduction.

Beyond the Lifesaving Station on the back side of small peninsula are some 19th century homes, a chapel, general store, drugstore and doctor’s office, a schoolhouse, and the Seamen’s Friend Society Reading Room.

Learn more by readingLong Ago is Not Far Away at Mystic Seaport."

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