Cellar Door Podcast: Oil!

Press/Media: Expert Comment / Interview


On August 25, 1924, a whaling ship called the Wanderer left New Bedford, Massachusetts. Crowds lined the shore to watch the sails fill with wind. For years and years, whaling money made New Bedford the wealthiest town in America. But that industry was dying. This was New Bedford’s last whaling voyage. We don’t know what those spectators thought, but a local paper gives some idea:

“With her disappearance all of the once glorious fleet of New Bedford whalers will have faded into ghost ships or been reduced to sad, silent hulks, neglected except by the casual visitor.”

The Wanderer set sail on Monday. On Tuesday, it crashed, just a few miles out, off the island of Cuttyhunk. Tourists and locals alike flocked to the island to watch sailors hurry cargo ashore before the Atlantic knocked the ship apart. One newspaper editorial ran:

“There is something pathetic in the fate of whalers as they have rotted away at the New Bedford wharves. … Torn to fragments on the rocks of Cuttyhunk by that angry ocean she had often braved, [the Wanderer’s end is nobler] than that of dying by inches in the slack waters of a harbor.”

Thus New Bedford whaling ended, with this scene of unambiguous ruin. There was no doubt in the mind of Colonel Edward Green.

“On the day following the recent storm I looked over the bay with a pair of powerful glasses which I had frequently tested by focusing on the … Wanderer. … I could not pick her up. She was gone.”

“Then and there at that moment,” Green later wrote, he saw that the whaling industry would vanish. He took it hard. Whaling had made Green rich, by way of inheritance and smart investment on the part of his mother, Hetty Green, who was for a time the wealthiest woman in America. Seeing that the family industry was history, Colonel Green made a choice. Another New Bedford whaler, a ship called the Charles W. Morgan, bobbed in a nearby harbor, “dying by inches.” Colonel Green bought that ship, brought it to his house, stuck it in the sand, and opened it as a museum.

Jamie Jones: And he insisted that alongside where the Morgan was going to be installed, there be barrels of whale oil, that were constantly renewed with fresh whale oil, that they would constantly rub into the surface of the barrels to make sure that the scent of whale oil remained fresh.

That’s writer Jamie L. Jones, whose book tells this story.

PeriodMar 7 2016

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