Published May 02. 2014 4:00AM
In a lobby space of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, under two enormous whale skeletons that dominate the big space, is an electronic countdown board for the visit this summer by Mystic Seaport’s whaling ship Charles W. Morgan.
When I visited Wednesday, the countdown was 65 days, two hours and 25 minutes.
Actually, New Bedford is calling the port call by the Morgan, which was launched there in 1841 and still has New Bedford as the homeport written on its transom, a homecoming.
And some in New Bedford might say the Morgan is not Mystic’s at all. It’s theirs, the last survivor of a fleet of thousands, part of a grand system of whale oil commerce that once made New Bedford the richest city per capita in America.
They use the slogan: The city that lit the world.
I remember signing in at a New Bedford visitors center a few years ago, and when the staff person saw a Mystic address she noted that Mystic is where they have the ship that was stolen from New Bedford.
That may be a prevalent point of view in a city that so proudly celebrates its whaling heritage. Indeed, the remains of the heart of the old port city, with its grand 19th century architecture and cobblestone streets, is actually an unusual urban national park, staffed by uniformed park rangers.
And yet it’s not hard to find a lot of institutional praise in New Bedford for Mystic Seaport, for saving a New Bedford treasure.
The Morgan homecoming is being planned as an elaborate dayslong celebration for which nearly $1 million has been raised.
“We have only the highest degree of gratitude,” James Russell, president of the New Bedford Whaling Museum said about Mystic Seaport. “Not only did they restore her, but they are letting her sail again.
“Everyone who is running a maritime museum is wishing Mystic the best of luck. They must be congratulated for this serious effort.”
Arthur Motta, director of marketing and communications for the whaling museum, said the history of Mystic Seaport, then the Marine Historical Association, in rescuing the Morgan, is clear on one point: The ship would not likely have otherwise survived.
In fact, Motta says, people in New Bedford had launched a campaign to save the Morgan, before it was moved to Mystic in 1941, but they fell well short of a $40,000 fundraising goal.
The city that lit the world had fallen on especially hard times in the Great Depression, with many of its textile mills closed. If the Morgan, then in very poor condition, had not been moved to Mystic, local restoration efforts would have likely stopped anyway, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Motta noted.
The Morgan was then at risk because the gentleman who had at first helped rescue the ship, displaying it in a sand berth at his estate in Dartmouth, Mass., died in 1935 without making provisions in his will for what would happen to the whaling ship.
Part of the museum’s current exhibit on the Morgan includes a 1925 painting of the ship, in its sand berth in Dartmouth, a popular attraction, with colored dress flags up and down its rig.
Even then the Morgan was celebrated as a very lucky survivor of the era of whaling, Motta said.
The work by Mystic Seaport has only reinforced the notion of what a lucky ship it is, even after its many voyages across the world’s oceans.
And given how far the ship traveled over the years, Motta added, Mystic is not all that far from New Bedford.
“In order to save the ship it had to go to Mystic, and Mystic kept its promise,” Motta said. “It’s amazing what’s happening now. It gives you goose bumps.”
This is the opinion of David Collins.