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August 1, 2005

-- Travel --

Ships give glimpse into America's past

By Zach Brokenrope

Standing aboard the deck of the Charles W. Morgan, a sense of history washes over you. On this deck, men risked their lives hoping to find fortune at sea. On this deck, these same men carved blubber from the whales they killed, sending some breeds of the great mammals to near extinction.

And it is on this deck that the story of early American whaling life emerges, through the labor of more than 1,500 volunteers at Mystic Seaport, Museum of America and the Sea, in Mystic, Conn.

Mystic Seaport, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, houses three permanent large ships, and one seasonal steamboat.

Its expansive property is located prominently on the shores of Mystic River. Many of the buildings are authentic, historically restored and presented as they would have appeared during the seaport’s heyday.

The three large ships, the Charles W. Morgan, the Joseph Conrad and the L.A. Dunton, are National Historic Landmarks.

The Charles W. Morgan, built in 1841, is the “last wooden whaling ship in the word,” said guide Kristen Kuczenski.

The ship, which traveled with a crew of 35 men, would leave for years at a time in search of whales and their valuable blubber. The longest of these trips lasted four years and 11 months – just shy of its fifth year at sea when it returned to port with its precious load, according to Kuczenski.

Seaport staff reenact the process of loading cargo and whale hunting on the Charles W. Morgan – the sailors used a small boat and went out in search of the whale – and when they finish the demonstration, ask for volunteers to help haul the smaller craft back on board.

Aboard the Morgan, it’s possible to travel below deck. The two lower levels of the ship offer an interesting view of what daily life was like for sailors (this writer still has bumps on his head from the numerous times he hit it on the low ceiling) and inspire a true respect for the men that spent their years at sea.

The other two vessels, which are less remarkable but still worth the time, are the Joseph Conrad and LA. Dunton.

The seaport took possession of the L.A. Dunton in 1968. The 1921 fishing schooner is one of the few left in the world that doesn’t run on an engine. Below deck, visitors can see sailor’s bunks and the galley kitchen.

The third large vessel in the collection, the Joseph Conrad, was built in Denmark in 1882 as a training facility for young Danish sailors. The original mission of the ship lives on today in a different form – it now serves as the dormitory for the seaport’s sailing school.

In July, the seaport hosted another noteworthy ship of historical significance: the Amistad.

Built at the seaport, the Amistad is a reproduction of a Spanish slave ship. Held captive and sailing from their native Sierra Leone in 1839, the Africans aboard were taken to Cuba and sold. The 53 slaves were put aboard the Amistad in Cuba and it was then that they overthrew their captors and took over the ship.

Instead of returning to Africa, the Amistad ended up in Connecticut, where a federal trial determined that the captives should go free.

The ships of Mystic Seaport provide an educational and entertaining look at one of America’s most productive periods, when the nation was still young, and looking forward to its best days.


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