At Large : A really big job
The Mystic Seaport trustees decided at the end of last month to expand the museum's current $6 million restoration of the New Bedford whaleship Charles W. Morgan, so that Morgan will be in sailing condition when the work is complete. That decision will add $2 million to the project's price, and even more as the museum raises funds to endow Morgan's future as a Seaport exhibit and the centerpiece of programs and exhibits to illustrate her historic place in New England whaling history. When the work is done, the Seaport will launch Morgan on a ceremonial voyage, her thirty-eighth.
It was a brave decision by the Mystic Seaport leadership, following a challenging consideration of the unique historic stature of the Morgan itself, its irreplaceability, and the maritime risks attached to a journey that will be the culmination of years of careful restoration work.
And then there is the matter of raising $8 million-plus in these uncertain times. The leadership of the fundraising part of the Seaport's restoration of the Morgan will fall, with cosmic appropriateness, to Matthew Pinkham Stackpole of West Tisbury. Many of us will be familiar with Matthew in his several roles, on and off the Vineyard - sailor, surveyor, masseur, storyteller, Martha's Vineyard Hospital fundraiser, SailMV president, a guardian of the USS Constitution, and for eight years before joining Mystic the executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Museum. But many will also be unfamiliar with Matthew's middle name.
The key here is that it descends, as he does, from whalers. The great grandson of Matthew Pinkham, master of the 18th century whaleship Romulus of Nantucket, Matthew was a Nantucketer before he was a Vineyarder. His father Edouard was curator at Mystic between 1953 and 1966, as well as a novelist, newspaperman, and historian of the Quaker whaling industry in America. Could there be better designed, built, and launched enthusiast for American whaling history and for the effort, embodied in the reconstruction of New Bedford-built and New Bedford-based Morgan, than Matthew Stackpole?
The Morgan, launched in 1841 and now a registered National Historic Landmark, arrived at Mystic Seaport 100 years after her birth. Throughout her working life, she was a fortunate vessel, financially successful and long-lived. Her career included 37 world-girdling whaling voyages. She was a part of the country's 19th century whaling fleet of 2,700 ships that made more than 14,864 voyages. Matthew says the whaling industry "lit and lubricated the world." Whaling success also helped finance America's cross-continent expansion and its mercantile success on a global scale in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Only USS Constitution, launched in 1797, is older. Constitution, carefully restored and maintained, went sailing in 1997, on the occasion of her 200th birthday.
Matthew's task is to assemble oodles of the right stuff to finance this keel-to-truck rebuild. It will not be a remodeling, a re-facing, a renovation, a nip and a tuck. What Mystic plans is a complete reconstruction, saving and using elements of the Morgan that were built into her in 1841. And, using materials and methods that would have been familiar to her original shipwrights - obviously sound as a dollar in both respects, given her successful, arduous 80 year history in profitable service - to re-launch her as a seagoing proposition. As expensive and archeological as all this sounds, it's possible because records of the Morgan's seaborne life, her design and construction, the materials used, her masters' logbooks and other records are available in libraries and museums. The Seaport's ship's carpenters will not be without technical support.
In the 1920s, when oil had supplanted whale oil to light and lubricate, when wooden and even steel square riggers circumnavigated the globe with case oil (kerosene in tin containers) for China and Japan, the Morgan was cast off, left to rot where her career began. With the Seaport's careful and determined fidelity to its mission and the fundraising prowess of the grandson of a whaler, Morgan will go back to sea to sail along a familiar track - from the Mystic River to New London for ballast, to Newport, to her New Bedford birthplace at the site of the Hillman yard, and through the Cape Cod Canal to Stellwagen Bank, the national marine sanctuary north of Provincetown, where whales still gather - before returning to her birth at Mystic where her long, eventful story has been so carefully preserved.