Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.
The Westport Historical Society has taken aim at Westport’s long history with the whaling industry and scored two direct hits. Last Thursday, a huge crowd packed into Howland Hall at the United Methodist Church to hear Richard C. Kugler, Director Emeritus of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, give an overview of the whaling business in North America, citing its ties to Westport and his own family.
Mr. Kugler’s illustrated lecture heralded the opening of an exhibition, “A Perilous Life” – Westport Whaling in the 19th Century at the Bell Schoolhouse that brightly illuminates Westport’s social, economic, and cultural connections with the industry.
“The latest compilation of whaling voyages made under sail between 1667 and 1928 lists nearly 15,000 (14,983) voyages that sailed from 110 whaling ports,” Kugler said, citing a book published by the New Bedford Whaling Museum last year. More than half of those voyages were made from nearby ports of New Bedford (nearly 5000), Nantucket (nearly 2200), Provincetown, and New London. Westport weighed in at eighth place with 326 voyages between 1775 and 1881 when the Andrew Hicks returned to New Bedford after its last voyage.
Westport men were involved in financing whale boats and building them, said Mr. Kugler. “One of virtues of both branches of the Westport River is there are many places with sloping shores ideal for building a vessel. We know that Paul Cuffe built number of vessels right off his shore.”
The Mermaid was one of several Westport built whaling vessels, was built in 1855 for Andrew Hicks, one of the dominant whaling agents of Westport. She made six whaling voyages from Westport between 1855 and 1876.
Photo courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum
The barque Mermaid built by Andrew Hicks was the largest vessel ever built in Westport specifically for whaling,” Mr. Kugler said. Typical of the day, Hicks would round up friends and neighbors to buy shares in the boat and local men would build it. Boat builders such as Allen and Sisson of Westport used specifications from the venture’s financiers to first make a model of the proposed vessel.
Once the model was approved, they would trace the real dimensions on the sail loft floor and begin construction. The completed hulls were usually towed to New Bedford, outfitted there, never to return to the restricted confines of Westport Harbor. Such was the case with the 113 foot long, 327 ton Andrew Hicks.
A. H. Cory’s store on the Point was the center of whaling enterprise on Westport Point. “Alexander Cory, Andrew Hicks and Henry Wilcox were the three great whaling merchants of Westport. Cory and his father Isaac, Jr. and grandfather Captain Isaac had been in the business and knew it,” Mr. Kugler said. Captain Cory was the first whaler to come to Westport Point.
Photo: Russell Hart and Richard Kugler chat after Kugler’s talk.
“In 1856, Hicks and fellow shareholders in the Mermaid contracted with Allen and Sisson to build whaling schooner giving rise to story of coincidences,” Kugler recalled. “Eli Allen was master carpenter and principal of Allen and Sisson and is the great grandfather of Russell Hart (in the audience), who I knew as a boy. My great grandfather engaged Russ’s great grandfather to build a modest vessel (Kate Cory) that would eventually become one of the most widely known whalers that sailed from an American port.”
Kugler showed a 1972 slide of Russell Hart’s grandfather George Palmer recalling the launching of the Mermaid and the Kate Cory behind Cory’s store to young Hart and Kugler.
While men like Hicks, Cory, and Wilcox could control the construction and outfitting, once the ships they commissioned set to sea it was up to their captains, Mother Nature, and fate to determine the rest. Kugler noted that 3% (545) of those nearly 15,000 voyages ended with the vessel condemned or abandoned. To illustrate, he recalled the fate of the barque Hero that he said “Encapsulates the title of the historical society’s current exhibit that Jenny O’Neill calls ‘The Perilous Life’”.
The 1810 letter of instruction to the Hero’s captain by its owners Isaac Cory and Paul Cuffe was specific, stating “Thou are fitted for a two year voyage and should return home so as not to overreach that time oil or no oil. When thou return when approaching America endeavor to steer clear of Nantucket Shoals sailing in with Long Island and making toward the Vineyard. Endeavor to make harbor in Newport or Tarpaulin Cove and give us notice or get into New Bedford.” The Hero never had need of the instructions.
While some voyages ended disastrously by the splintering of a whale boat with a powerful smack from a sperm whale’s flukes or the battering in of a hull by an Arctic iceberg, others ended with a succession of more mundane perils of the whaling life, as was the case with the Hero.
“The next time we hear from the Hero is from its Captain Bearns in a letter to Cory and Cuffe dated June 30, 1812 from Coquimbo, Chile,” Mr. Kugler said. The captain begins the bad news by stating “The barque is very rotten and so much so that it is impossible to get her home and get her repaired,” and continues with a list of woes that ends with him selling the boat after having it condemned by the authorities. Bearns had been hampered by pain in his eye so bad he couldn’t write, his men had come down with scurvy, he had been becalmed while attempting to limp into port, and he put his eighteen sick men ashore to tow the boat to safety. To add insult to injury, “the American consul is a Spanish man and he is trying to take advantage of me by making me pay an extra 30%.”
Photo: Kate Cory plan and model
During the question and answer period, Mr. Kugler gave a brief history of the 1856 construction and 1863 demise of the Kate Cory, named after his great aunt, who was the daughter of Alexander H. Cory.
The historical society’s exhibit, “A Perilous Life” – Westport Whaling in the 19th Century showcases its trove of artifacts and documents. “We wanted to do a comprehensive study of whaling history in Westport. I’m really grateful to the members of the Westport community for the loan of so many valuable items for this exhibit, “ said the Director Jenny O’Neill. Items on loan include charts, scrimshaw, photographs, letters, and sailing gear.
The explanatory cards with each section of the exhibit strike an uncommonly fine balance of concise reportage and rich detail. One hopes that the exhibit might be displayed at public buildings or schools or become part of the society’s web site. It is a powerful reminder of the town’s rich historic heritage.
“A Perilous Life” – Westport Whaling in the 19th Century
Bell School, 25 Drift Road at the Head of Westport
Open 10 – 4, Saturday August 26th through Monday August 28th and
Saturday September 2nd through Monday 4th
The hazards of the job: (letter on display at the WHS)
“…I got baptized handsome in the following manner without ceremony. We raised whales and lowered away and the boat that I was in soon got fast and as soon as Tripp struck the whale he struck our boat and stove her and then by way of proving his regard for us beyond a doubt he gave us a parting kiss with his flukes that demolished our boat entirely and spilled us in the drink ...being in some degree amphibious we managed to keep bung up and bilge free till the nearest boat…”
Portion of letter by Henry T. Pettey to his sister Nancy, sent from island Fayal, Azores, on September 9, 1854.
• Kate Cory: engravings, a model, and accounts of her capture and burning on island off coast of Brazil by a confederate officer on CSS Alabama in 1863.
• Westport masters and captains and the women who sailed with them
• Catastrophes at sea, including stories of cannabalism,
• Posters and letters about the movie “Down to the Sea in Ships”, a 1920 film about whaling made in Westport. The writer of the script was inspired by account of whaling recalled by James Sowle.
• History of Ship building in Westport Head and Westport Point, including the architectural legacy of homes (photos) built there by whaling captains
• Items on loan about Clifford Ashley, author of “The Yankee Whaler” and “Ashley’s Book of Knots” and artifacts on loan from local residents
• Westport registered vessels
• Large chart showing the routes of two vessels, one merchant and one whaler, in N Atlantic in 1844