Congratulations to @MysticSeaport and the numerous volunteers who, after five years and $7 million, restored the last wooden whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan to majestic status and re-launched her back into the water on the 172nd anniversary of her maiden voyage. Inspired by this recent accomplishment, I decided to take a quick walk around CHS to discover some more of Connecticut’s whaling and shipping history.
As many know, the whale, or sperm whale to be specific, is the state animal of Connecticut. Whaling was an important part of CT history in the 1800’s, ranking only behind Massachusetts in the North American whaling industry. The impact of whaling can still be seen today in pop culture. Conny the Whale, a life-size, 60 foot sperm whale replica welcomes visitors to the Children’s Museum in West Hartford every day. The Hartford Whalers continue to be one of NHL’s top five selling logos, even after being defunct for the past 16 years! They are still remembered as being, according to an article just this week on CBSsports.com, “perhaps the most popular NHL team that no longer exists.”
Among the CHS collection, I came across a “Whales and Connecticut” poster in the hallway leading from our auditorium to our other exhibit areas. This is a high traffic area, so thousands of school-aged children undoubtedly, see this poster every year. The poster mentions the importance of whaling in Connecticut and tells how the whale’s blubber was used to make oil and machine lubricant, as well as stating that in 1975 the sperm whale became our official state animal. Two images adorn the poster, one of a famous Kellogg lithograph (circa 1851-53) and a whale oil lamp (circa early 1800s). In addition, there are numerous whaling items online at emuseum.chs.org, simply type in “whale” in the search box.
Shipping also played an important part in CT history. In CHS’s Making Connecticut exhibit, we have a display of what a shipping merchant’s desk may have looked like. During the 1700’s, shipping was a vital part of the trade industry and owners would often work from desks overlooking their ships or harbors in what may be the original home-office set up. The portrait of Ashbel Riley of Wethersfield, CT is likely painting in this setting. In addition, widows often took over the business upon the death of their husbands, as depicted in the portrait to the left of Margaret Beauchamp Chenevard.
I also found a scaled replica of the war ship, Oliver Cromwell, located in our Making Connecticut exhibit. The model is on loan from the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, CT, another notable stop in the history of Connecticut.
Finally, while not in Connecticut, a trip to the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts is certainly worthy of your time to learn more about the rich history of whaling in New England.
Ed Main is the Communications Manager at the Connecticut Historical Society.