Published June 22. 2014 4:00AM
In the spring of 1924, the Charles W. Morgan was moored at Union Wharf in Fairhaven, Mass., an 83-year-old hulk with a colorful past but no apparent future.
Its hull was weathered and rotting, and large letters spelling out "Nautilus," a ship it recently had played in a silent movie, were faintly visible on its bow.
At that moment, New Bedford whaling, in decline for decades, was about to die. Little was left of the city's once-great fleet, but the Morgan, which had sailed from 1841 till just three years earlier, was still afloat.
It was an ideal time for New Bedford to preserve the old whaler as an icon of its days as the City That Lit the World. But that never happened.
As the Morgan returns to its old homeport this week for the first time since 1941, it is being celebrated as a lucky ship that survived epic storms, Arctic ice and angry natives. But its greatest luck was withstanding the sustained indifference of the city that launched it on its globe-spanning career.
A would-be memorial
Harry Neyland was anything but indifferent. A painter who was partial to maritime scenes, he had become a part owner of the Morgan to save it for posterity. On June 28, 1924, Neyland announced a plan, endorsed by the other owners, to establish the ship as a memorial.
The Morgan would be turned over to the city of New Bedford at no charge, provided it was maintained and open to the public in the summer. Backers of the plan felt that steps needed to be taken immediately to preserve this relic of the whaling days.
Immediately was almost too late. Two days after the announcement, a cigarette butt tossed into a load of hay started a fire on the Vineyard Line dock in New Bedford. The flames quickly spread to the steamer Sankaty, and five crewmen had just enough time to dive overboard.
When the Sankaty's mooring lines burned through, the blazing ship drifted into the Acushnet River and moved toward the Fairhaven shore, headed straight for the Morgan.
Fairhaven firemen boarded the whaler and were ready with their hoses when the Sankaty came alongside. The Morgan caught fire as the two ships came into contact but was saved, though barely.
The fire inspired no urgency in city officials. They got some estimates on what it would cost to maintain the ship, then put the matter aside indefinitely.
Meanwhile, another New Bedford whaler was preparing to put to sea. The Wanderer was the only other square-rigger still around, and like the Morgan, it was near the end of its service life.
On the morning of Aug. 25, several hundred people turned out to see an era end as the Wanderer sailed on what was expected to be its final voyage. That turned out to be true, but in a most unexpected way.
The day after it sailed, the Wanderer was caught in a storm off nearby Cuttyhunk Island and was driven onto the rocks. It was a total loss. A second storm broke up the hull a month later.
Suddenly, the Charles W. Morgan was the last surviving square-rigged whaler in the world.
Still the city did nothing, so Neyland presented an ultimatum: Decide by Oct. 10 or the offer would be withdrawn. Two days before the deadline, the Board of Aldermen, citing insufficient public interest to justify the expense, declined the offer with thanks.
No one in New Bedford seemed willing to save the Morgan, with one notable exception.
Reprieve at Round Hill
Everything about Col. Edward Howland Robinson Green was big: his name, his girth, his fortune. And especially his enthusiasms.
He wasn't just a coin collector: He owned the only five 1913 Liberty head nickels in existence. He wasn't just a stamp collector: He had all 100 of the famous "Inverted Jenny" printing errors.
The millionaire businessman had turned his estate at Round Hill in nearby South Dartmouth into a kind of theme park for his many interests. He had a windmill, a zeppelin and his own radio station.
What he didn't have was the world's last square-rigged whaling ship. But that was about to change.
Before New Bedford passed on the Morgan, Neyland had seen the writing on the wall and had discussed the ship with Green. As he observed the city's apathy, Green told Neyland that if the city didn't want it, he would take it.
Then, as he awaited the aldermen's decision, the public-spirited Green treated New Bedford's baseball fans to a novelty: radio broadcasts of the World Series from a truck fitted with loudspeakers.
As soon as the rejection was final, Green announced he would build a dock at his estate and moor the ship in a bed of sand and concrete. The public could come visit whenever they liked.
The Morgan was more than a trophy for Green. It was something of a family heirloom. Years earlier, his grandfather had owned the ship after buying it from Charles W. Morgan himself.
The ship was restored in Fairhaven, then towed to its final destination. Green established a corporation called Whaling Enshrined to maintain it. With the flags of every whaling concern in New Bedford history flying from its rigging, it was dedicated on July 21, 1926, the 85th anniversary of its launch.
Thousands came to see the Morgan at Round Hill and to be regaled by Capt. George Fred Tilton, the ship's skipper in retirement. Tilton thrilled the visitors with the story of his 3,000-mile trek across the Arctic in 1897 to get help for his shipmates trapped in the ice.
Green had planned to create a replica whaling village around the Morgan but changed his mind. He decided to build himself an airport instead.
When he died in 1936, the flag on the Morgan was lowered to half-mast. But what seemed like just a sad day for the old ship was the start of a crisis.
In search of a savior
Green spent generously to maintain the Morgan and had spoken often of his intention to set up an endowment for it. But no evidence turned up that he had provided one cent for the ship's future. No one knew why.
John M. Bullard, an officer of Whaling Enshrined, blamed Green's mother, the fabulously wealthy and notoriously stingy financier Hetty Green. When Green broke his leg as a child, she tried to have him admitted to a free clinic for the poor. That later earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "World's Greatest Miser."
Green's will left everything to his mother, or in the event of her death - which had occurred years before - to his sister.
"Undoubtedly, his mother had dictated that will and, although he always intended to draw another, he probably kept putting it off, fearful of his future meeting in Heaven, or elsewhere, with Hetty!" Bullard wrote.
Whaling Enshrined immediately began to run out of money. Within a year, it had resorted to charging a 25-cent admission to see the Morgan.
Then one September day in 1938, the wind began to pick up. Out of nowhere came New England's greatest hurricane, which pried the Morgan's stern from its sand berth and tore copper plates from its hull. The damage was not severe, but there was no money to fix it.
With the roads at Round Hill washed out and the Morgan inaccessible, funding was sought to move the ship back to New Bedford. But the city was no more interested in paying than it had been 15 years earlier. Futile appeals were also made to the Massachusetts legislature and even to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A spirited fund drive was undertaken to "Keep Her Colors Flying." Stamps and postal covers were issued, poems were written, and a former secretary of the Navy lent his support. But the result was far short of the $40,000 goal, and most of the donors were from out of town.
What the Morgan needed was another savior, and one came along at the right time. The Marine Historical Association in far-off Mystic had inquired about buying the ship two years earlier but was assured plenty of people were working hard to keep it in New Bedford.
But now the ship was available for nothing more than a promise to take care of it. The association agreed, and the transfer became official in the summer of 1941, just days after the Morgan's 100th birthday.
The new owners arranged for the ship to be dug out of its berth at Round Hill. Before it departed for Mystic, it was towed back to the same wharf where, in 1924, it had awaited its fate.
On Nov. 5, 1941, as the Coast Guard cutter General Greene towed the Morgan away for the last time, about 100 people gathered on the waterfront to watch it go. Among them was Frank Freitas, who 20 years earlier had been its final first mate.
"Seems a shame that she has to leave New Bedford," Freitas said. "She should never leave here."
Over the years, far too few had felt the same way.