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  • Magic, Luck, and My Passage on the 38th Voyage of the Bark Charles W. Morgan
  • Michael P. Dyer

Many have called the Charles W. Morgan a “lucky ship.” I don’t know about that. While it is true that over the eighty years of her working career and for almost two decades afterwards this ancient whaler had eluded more than her share of the disastrous vicissitudes endemic to her trade, including fire, rot, and hurricanes, the word “magical,” I think, may be a better description. Throughout history ships have been described as lucky (or not), or worse; Joseph Conrad wrote of one ship in “The Brute, A Piece of Invective” (1907): “if she wasn’t mad, then she was the most evil-minded, underhand savage brute that ever went afloat.” “She’s a lucky ship” is a common turn of phrase, but in the case of the Morgan, while it may even be true, there seems a bit more to it. Luck is too easy an idea for the full freight of meaning embodied in this historic ship. Winning the lottery is simply luck, but skill and talent are curiously intangible. Belief anchors faith and faith inspires, inspiration elevates the whole into a universe of unseen possibilities, and that’s magic. As long as we’re attributing supernatural qualities to inanimate objects we might as well go whole-hog. I prefer magic to luck and there is magic in the Morgan. The ship has a marvelous story, one that has captivated artists, authors, craftsmen, and others attuned to the capturing of momentous perceptions.

Here is a vessel built for whaling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1841 by men who did nothing but build whaling ships. Once a year for nine years between 1826 and 1835 (more or less: they took a few years off in the mid-1830s and in 1834 built two vessels) and then periodically thereafter, Jethro and Zachariah Hillman of New Bedford built superb ships for the whale fishery. They did not build ships at a breakneck speed like some yards did, several of which produced ships at more than twice their rate. The Hillman Brothers built their whalers carefully for some of the most important whaling agents in the town, invested in their own handiwork, and, whether by cause and effect or simply luck, all of their ships had long and successful careers.

The Hillman brothers’ shipyard, described in the New Bedford city directories as being located at the “foot of Maxfield Street,” was evidently little more than a big patch of dirt and a building with space enough for lofting the great timbers needed in the construction. Jethro and Zachariah each lived nearby, and the whole neighborhood surrounding Maxfield Street was home to [End Page 123] shipwrights, joiners, coopers, riggers, sail-makers, and other mechanics of the maritime trades. Down the block was the “Beetle’s Yard.” This entire city block surrounded a common where William and Rodolphus W. Beetle had their spar yard; in the surrounding buildings were tool makers and other craftsmen, and on the waterfront another block away was the Wilcox and Sherman lumber yard. In short, the Charles W. Morgan was built by a community devoted to the vessel’s mission at the height of their skills. The broadaxes of the wrights who hewed her white oak keel and the slicks that shaved her tenons may well have been made by Braddock D. Hathaway, whose tool shop was located at the Beetle Yard. More talent, belief, faith, and inspiration went into the shaping of every piece of timber in a vessel produced in the Hillman Yard than may easily be guessed.

The ship was named for the man who commissioned her building, a Quaker from Philadelphia who married the daughter of another Quaker who had spent his own youth working in the spermaceti candle factories in Newport, Rhode Island, before himself marrying the daughter of a whaling merchant from Nantucket. Family connections like these formed the basic structure of many of the town’s whaling firms. The principals involved in the ultimate creation of the Charles W. Morgan included William Rotch, Sr., a son of Joseph Rotch of Nantucket who commissioned...


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