By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
5:10 PM EDT, July 18, 2013
The 172-year-old whaler Charles W. Morgan, the nation's oldest surviving merchant vessel, will emerge Sunday from an almost five-year, multimillion-dollar restoration effort headed by a former Marylander.
Like a proud papa, Quentin Snediker, shipyard director at historic Mystic Seaport in Connecticut where the work was completed, will no doubt be beaming as the National Historic Landmark is lowered into the Mystic River in a public ceremony on the anniversary of its original launch in New Bedford, Mass., in 1841.
The Charles W. Morgan's career spanned 80 years. It traveled to whaling grounds in the Pacific and Indian oceans on 37 voyages that often lasted more than three years. It earned $1.4 million for its various owners before it was retired in 1921.
The 133-foot-long vessel, which has a beam of 27.7 feet and weighs 314 gross tons, is the sole surviving vessel from the nation's whaling fleet, which once numbered more than 2,700 ships.
It was built at the Hillman Bros. shipyard in New Bedford for $52,000. It was named for Charles Waln Morgan, a Quaker, who invested in whaling vessels.
Its first voyage took it from Massachusetts around the treacherous Cape Horn and into the Pacific. By the time the Morgan returned to New Bedford, in its hold rode a cargo of whale oil and bone that was estimated to be worth $56,000, more than making up for the cost to build the ship.
The ship left Atlantic waters in 1886, when its hailing port became San Francisco. It remained there until 1904, when it returned to New Bedford.
Snediker, 62, who oversaw the work that was conducted in the museum's Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard, has Maryland connections.
From 1972 to 1988, he was captain of the Mystic Whaler and Mystic Clipper, vessels that sailed seasonally out of Annapolis. From 1992 to 1994, he was associate director of programs at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.
"I love the bay and its signature culture, and I have a special place in my heart for Baltimore," said Snediker, who earned a master's degree in historic preservation from Goucher College. He described the Morgan's restoration work as "challenging, yes, but not overwhelmingly so."
"I had all of the infrastructure. I had the staff, resources and overall commitment from Mystic Seaport. They gave us all of the tools we needed for the restoration," he said in a telephone interview the other day.
"It's funny, it took the original builders nine months to build her and 41/2 years for us to restore her, and we kept as much of her original fabric as we could," said Snediker, who added that anything that was removed and replicated was "studied and documented. We were able to analyze her construction techniques while conducting a forensic examination. We wanted to know how the vessel had aged."
He quickly explained, "Nothing was thrown away. We have a warehouse full of material we removed from the Morgan."
While the Morgan never ventured into the Chesapeake Bay, there are several other Baltimore and Maryland connections. Aboard the Morgan on its fifth voyage, which lasted from 1856 to 1859, were two 21-year-old Baltimoreans, William H. Drew and Albert Palmer.
On voyage 19, another Marylander, George Phillips, 26, was a crew member, serving aboard the ship from 1891 to 1892.
Later, W.H. Summers, a Maryland native who rose from seaman to ship keeper and finally engineer, served as a crew member for eight voyages between 1891 to 1900, sailing from San Francisco.
The Morgan had a second career as a movie star and through the intervening years became a veteran floating Hollywood trouper.
In 1916, it starred as the whaling ship Harpoon in the silent thriller "Miss Petticoats," and six years later was featured in "Down to the Sea in Ships," starring Clara Bow, later Hollywood's "It Girl," in her screen debut. The Morgan again found movie work in 1935 in the screen adaptation of Joseph Hergesheimer's novel, "Java Head."
Since 1941, the ship has been an essential component of the Mystic Seaport collection of historic vessels and has been visited by more than 20 million, according to museum officials.
The Morgan has been restored four times through the years. But the present restoration — which preserved nearly 20 percent of its original wood — is perhaps the most extensive.
About 80 percent of its live oak frame below the water line was replaced, as well as 174 exterior planks and an interior ceiling, with 70 planks. The stern, which had begun to sag, was also rebuilt.
After refitting and sea trials in New London, Conn., the Morgan will set sail on its 38th voyage in May with visits to New England ports. All modern equipment required during the voyages will be removed upon its return to Mystic, said Snediker.
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