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Long IslandHistory

In search of whales

"Fire in the chimney" - what whalers called

"Fire in the chimney" - what whalers called the effect of blood spurting through a whale's blowhole. The artwork is an aquatint done around 1830. Photo Credit: Sag Harbor Whaling Museum

Just after sunrise on a cold December morning in 1845, the whaler Konohassett pulled up anchor in Sag Harbor and slipped into the falling tide that flowed into Gardiners Bay.

Soon, the ship passed the rounded bluff of Montauk. The lighthouse atop the bluff was the last thing the men aboard the vessel would see on Long Island as they headed out to sea; it would be the first thing they would see on their return trip.

Whenever that would be.

They would not be back until their crews had killed enough sperm whales, right whales and bowhead whales to fill barrels with oil that would make the ship's owners wealthy, lubricate machinery, and light homes, schools and businesses up and down the East Coast. America glowed because of the men aboard the Konohassett, and men on hundreds of other vessels who on this same morning prowled the world's oceans on a murderous intersection with whales. Since the first of the year, 26 other whaling vessels had left Sag Harbor, and none had yet returned.

The men aboard the 300-ton Konohassett represented a cross section of Long Island life and of America itself. Her captain was J.B. Worth, a white man from a Southold farm family; his crew was made up of white farm boys, Indians from reservations and shanty towns who spent their lives on the poor margins of society, and three black men -- Reese Smith, Philip Smith and Solomon Ward -- who came to the Konohassett because it was one of the few jobs they could get.

No work anywhere in America was so integrated, but it was harsh reality and not good intentions that brought crews together. "Whaling was the most dangerous job on the sea that has ever existed,'' said George Finckenor, curator of the whaling museum in Sag Harbor. "There was no romance associated with it at all -- it was brutal. Few men wanted to do it.''

To get men to work on whaling vessels, owners posted advertisements near port towns. The advertisements would read: "Chance of a Lifetime'' or "Come See the World'' or "Strong Whalemen Wanted.'' Because of the dangers, small pay and years at sea, whaling most often attracted men who could not find other work -- Indians, former slaves, poor whites.

Ships' records tell the day-to-day stories of long voyages, of years at sea, of the killing and butchering of whales, and of other ships sighted and islands visited. But they also tell the stories of captains killed by whales, crewmen drowned or their limbs ripped off by ropes, of ships lost in ice floes, of ships wrecked on uncharted shoals. There are graves of Long Island and New England whalers on islands in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

And there are monuments, too. There is a monument today in Japan to the men of the Manhattan, a Sag Harbor whaler whose crew included a former slave from Southampton and a Shinnecock Indian. It is one more monument than exists on Long Island to either Indians or slaves.

"These were men who went where no one had ever gone,'' said David Littlefield, a historian at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

The whaling industry, which brought millions of dollars in profits to Long Island in less than 30 years before the industry's sudden collapse in the 1860s, was documented in precise detail. Captains kept journals of exactly where their boats were, what they saw, how many whales were killed and how many got away. They even made pencil drawings in their journals of the whales they killed. Seen today, these handsome drawings stir the imagination, and evoke images of an extraordinary chapter in American history.

Captains were not the only ones to keep records. Whaling companies also kept detailed accounts of exactly how many barrels of oil were collected on journeys, along with how many pounds of whalebone; some crew members kept detailed diaries showing every event that occurred during months at sea. In one case, a woman from Orient, Martha Brown, kept a diary of her experiences on the Lucy Ann, in the late 1840s. She wrote of burials at sea, animal life sighted, and visits to exotic places with names like Three Kings Island. She lived out her life in an old Orient farmhouse; a photograph taken in 1905 shows a white-haired Brown greeting visitors in front of her house.

Aboard the Konohassett, Worth was like every other whaling captain -- he kept a detailed journal. Five months after leaving Sag Harbor, the ship was in the South Pacific. There, in the dark of a spring night, Worth, half a world away from his Southold farm, coolly penned a one-paragraph comment.

May 24, 1 o'clock in the morning, ship K, under full sail before the wind, going at a rate of 5 knots, struck upon a coral reef which is not drawn on any chart. We are obliged to leave ship in our boats with a little bread and water.

* * *

By the mid-1840s, whaling was the second-largest industry in New York and New England, and the seventh-largest in the country. At its height, the industry employed more than 10,000 seamen, and thousands more worked as coopers, carpenters, rope and sail makers, and boat builders.

"In 1846, the height of whaling in the Northeast, there were 730 ships involved,'' Littlefield said. "While an exact dollar amount has been very hard to pin down, it involved tens of millions of dollars in profits that were spread out to crewmen, captains, ship owners, agents and everyone involved in the support industries. It was a massive business.''

The business made Sag Harbor a bustling port town and home to a U.S. customs house that kept records of every ship and every ship's cargo. More than 60 whaling ships called Sag Harbor home; much smaller fleets worked out of Greenport and Cold Spring Harbor. To the north, New Bedford, Mass., was home to the largest whaling fleet on the East Coast. There, Herman Melville set his novel "Moby Dick,'' about a white whale's destruction of a ship and its captain -- a story inspired by the real-life sinking of a ship by a sperm whale.

Sag Harbor's maritime history can be read in its streets -- they lead directly to the harbor.

"If a visitor were dropped into Sag Harbor blindfolded, he would know immediately by the directions of the streets that he was in a place different from nearly every other community,'' said Robert MacKay, director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities. "In Long Island communities, streets were built around a commons area, or ran parallel to the water, not perpendicular to the water.''

In the 1600s and 1700s, whaling had been a shore business, with spotters on the ocean beaches seeing whales offshore, then calling for crews to man dories that would chase and kill them. The dead whale would be towed to the beach, where its thick blubber would be stripped off with long poles that looked like spades. It was ugly, bloody work, the carcass laid bare down to the bones. The thick, rubbery blubber would be taken to a ``tryworks,'' where it would be boiled in large vats, and the oil poured into barrels. The bones would be shipped to manufacturers for use in such items as shoehorns, gentlemen's collars, umbrella stays and hoops in women's dresses.

"When the tryworks were going, everyone in town knew it,'' MacKay said. "The smell was just awful. You see in many town's earliest records laws that said tryworks had to be well away from where people lived.''

Before Europeans arrived, the Indians of Long Island hunted whales from dugout canoes. The Algonquian people were masters at chasing whales from dugout canoes, and killing them with long spears. The Indians used the whale parts both for food and in ceremonies.

But by the early 19th Century, shore whaling was long dead. Whales were no longer coming in close to the shore, and because of the great distances traveled to hunt them, large ships were outfitted to be away for months, even years. ``It has always been believed that whale populations had diminished to a point where people no longer saw them from the shore,'' said Littlefield. "Now there's some thinking that suggests the whales had gotten smart and traveled by different routes so as to avoid hunters.''

By the 1820s, large ships were being constructed on the Long Island waterfront for use in the round-the-world whale trade. Whale oil -- particularly the fine oil found in the heads of sperm whales -- was highly prized for candles and as a lubricant for machinery, in particular machines used in the textile industry. The sperm whale was the whale of choice for hunters: After killing one, they would sever its head with long, pole-like axes and drain the oil out of a large cavity. Right whales and bowheads were valued only for the oil in their blubber.

After the crew spotted a whale, dories were dispatched to chase them across the open ocean. A man armed with a harpoon stood in the front of the dory, a huge coil of rope laying at his feet. When he was alongside the whale, the man plunged the harpoon into the whale's chest, hoping to strike the lung or heart. Whalers had a term for when blood shot out of a blow hole, which indicated the animal had been struck in the lungs -- "fire in the chimney.''

"You can imagine coming up alongside a huge whale in a small dory when blood was shooting out the blowhole,'' said Finckenor. "But that's what the whalers wanted -- to kill it quickly. Otherwise, the whale could pull the dory for miles and if the harpoon pulled out, the whale was lost. And many times the whale would dive hard and because of its size and weight overturn the dory it was attached to. Whales were also known to turn on the dories and attack them. Sperm whales had that reputation.''

Once the whale was dead, it was towed alongside the ship, where it was butchered. As the blubber was being cut off the carcass, the ship floated in a sea of blood churned by sharks feeding on the carcass.

"The man doing the cutting stood on a wood plank that jutted out from the boat,'' Littlefield said. "He held a long spade in his hands and as he cut up the whale, the blubber would be pulled up onto the boat by blubber hooks and block and tackles. If the man fell off the plank, he would have to hope a crewman would get him out before the sharks got him.''

If going to sea had a romantic attraction to 19th Century men and women, the butchering of the whales was anything but that.

"It's always been believed that there was something glamorous about going to sea and being on a whaling vessel,'' MacKay said. "People go to places like Sag Harbor and see the handsome captain's house with the white picket fence around it and think the whole enterprise was somehow romantic. But it was an ugly, mean affair.''

Mean and difficult enough to make it hard to find crews. "In many cases,'' Littlefield explained, "a ship would leave, say, New Bedford, with only a small crew. The first stop would be the Azores islands, which were traditional sperm whale grounds, then south to the Cape Verde Islands. At these places, crews would be filled out so that on some whalers most of the crews were from these islands.''

The pay was absymal. What a ship brought back in terms of profit depended on how much oil and bone it collected -- and, specifically, how much sperm oil, which was more valuable -- and what price it brought at the time. For example, oil prices ranged from a few cents a gallon some years to more than $2 a gallon in the 1860s, when whaling was scaled back because of, among other things, the Civil War.

"Traditionally, the profit was divided into thirds,'' said Littlefield. "One third went to the owners and agents, one third went to upkeep of the ship, and one third went to the captain and crew. The captain would get a larger share of that one-third than a crewman. Some crewmen got one-two hundredth, or one-two hundred and twenty-fifth. A captain might get a tenth, or a sixteenth. But if you were at sea for two years or more, the money was not much.''

Of the 26 Sag Harbor whalers that sailed in 1845, one, the American, suffered the loss of its captain (a man named Pierson) and three crewmen, who were killed by a whale. The surviving crew mutinied in the Sandwich Islands -- now called Hawaii. The ship was condemned and never returned to Sag Harbor.

Then there is the story of the Konohassett. Captain Worth's journal tells the story of hitting the coral reef, ``which is not drawn on any chart,'' and of abandoning the ship with only bread and water to survive on.

Records at the John Jermaine Library in Sag Harbor say that the boat had hit "Pell's Reef,'' and that the crew built another ship from the wreckage of the Konohassett, salvaging timbers, pitch, sails, nails and a single drill. Eighteen days later, the new boat, the 22-foot Konohassett Jr., was launched, with Worth and six others aboard. After 42 days at sea, the little boat sailed into the Sandwich Islands.

There, Worth boarded a larger ship and sailed back to Pell's Reef, where he picked up the rest of his crew -- ``no lives lost, a remarkable feat,'' according to one account.

Months later aboard another ship, Worth and his crew rounded the familar bluff of Montauk Point, and saw the light atop it. They were home, at long last.

* * *

Events conspired to cripple the whaling industry, which peaked in the 1840s. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 -- the same year a Sag Harbor whaler became the first to ever sail through the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean to kill bowheads -- caused a flood of men who otherwise might have worked on whalers to go west; in addition, owners of vessels that had been used to hunt whales found it more profitable to carry passengers to California.

Several Long Island whaling vessels sailed to California and never returned. One was the Niantic, which was left to rot on a San Francisco dock in 1849. A fire in 1851 burned it to the waterline, and a hotel was built on top of it. A section of the Niantic's hull was excavated in 1978 -- a small piece of Long Island history, far from home.

When the last whaling vessel sailed out of Cold Spring Harbor in 1858, the glory days of whaling from that village had faded. The following year, oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, and overnight a new -- and close-to-home -- supply of oil was in the marketplace. Two years later, the beginning of the Civil War all but killed off any remaining vestiges of whaling.

"Whalers in the open ocean came under attack from Confederate raiders,'' Littlefield said. ``It now became even more dangerous to go to sea. Most ships just stayed at home.''

In 1866, one of the last Sag Harbor whalers, the Ocean, sailed to sea and was never seen again. The very last Sag Harbor whaler was the Myra, which sailed in 1871. Three years later, the Myra came to an inglorious end, breaking up off Barbados, her wreckage scattered across the ocean floor.

While the market for whale oil died in the 1850s, the market for baleen -- whalebone -- lived on until 1908. That year, a new type of women's dress was invented that did not need thin strips of whalebone to keep it billowy. And corsets, which used stays made of baleen, went out of fashion, too. And with it, an industry died.

The last whale hunted off Long Island was killed Feb. 22, 1907, by a group of aging East Hampton whalers, such as Josh Edwards. It was towed to an Amagansett beach, where a group of men, using tools they had not used in decades, cut off the blubber. But there was no demand for whale oil, so their work was an exercise in nostalgia.

The whale was itself a relic. Its bones were shipped to the Museum of Natural History in New York, where they were reassembled and hung from a ceiling as part of a display.

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