During the Charles W. Morgan’s recent tour of the Cape and Islands and points beyond, Stephen Borkowski had the rare opportunity to sail aboard the historic wooden whaling vessel as a reward for the commitment he has shown to the study of Provincetown’s history. Borkowski, a member of the Provincetown Historical Commission, had been on the ship before, having visited the 1841 whaler during its recent restoration at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and once taking part in an on-board read-a-thon of Herman Melville’s classic, “Moby Dick.” But sailing on her, on the open sea off Provincetown, beneath unfurled sails and a clear blue sky, was something altogether different. For about 10 minutes, he even got to take the wheel.
“Nothing prepared me for being on the ship, below deck, while it’s moving,” Borkowski says. “It was such a sensory experience, looking back at the town as you’re sailing away, feeling the pulling and the listing of the ship with every turn of the wheel. It was Melville come alive. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it was one of the most thrilling experiences in my life.”
Melville; the ‘Morgan; and the men who sailed out of Provincetown on more than 900 whaling voyages from 1820 to 1920: making connections between these pieces of history is the theme of Forgotten Port: Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage, a current exhibit at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
Opened in April, the exhibit had attracted more than 60,000 visitors as of mid-August and remains on display through November 30.
“The whaling history here in Provincetown is rich, deep, and had a significant impact on the Cape Cod community,” says John McDonagh, the museum’s executive director. “The exhibit has been extremely well received by those who are knowledgeable about the whaling industry—and others. We want our local residents, local people, Cape Cod people, to come out and see it.”
According to Amy Whorf McGuiggan, the exhibit’s guest curator, the height of the whaling era in America was around the 1850s, but the industry began to gain steam in Provincetown earlier—during the 1820s. In the 1840s, Provincetown whaling reached a plateau, Whorf McGuiggan adds, but remained viable, with upwards of 50 whalers embarking from the town. Though constructed in New Bedford, the Charles W. Morgan was officially registered in Provincetown near the end of its working career.
Through artwork, artifacts, photographs, and the screening of the only film ever made of an actual whaling voyage, the exhibit tells the story of whaling in Provincetown—from the Native Americans’ use of drift whales for food and fuel to the golden age of whaling in the mid-19th century, and through the industry’s decline and the varied factors that led to it.
Displayed around the spacious exhibit room are more than 20 different harpoons, lances, and other tools that were used to hunt, capture and process whales. Other artifacts include a full-sized model of a juvenile whale’s fluke or tail, whale oil lamps, a ship’s Bible, and a logbook, which lists in detail one whaler’s daily activities, including whale sightings and hunts. Brief biographies on several local ships’ captains provide information about their lives, successes, and tragedies on the high seas. Also displayed are intricate pieces of scrimshaw artwork, created by whale men during downtime on their long voyages.
Another unique element is the one-of-a-kind 1916 film, “Whaling Days,” which was shot aboard the whaler, Viola. Commissioned by whaling captain John Atkins Cook, the film captures scenes from Cook’s final voyage. One of several generations of Provincetown whalers, Cook got his start in the industry as a harpooner and over the years survived a shipwreck, a mutiny, and other hazards to become one of the region’s most famous whalers; at one point, he was even a co-owner of the Charles W. Morgan. When his film was completed, Cook traveled to many local libraries to screen it and give lectures on the whaling industry.
The silent, black and white film—about an hour in length—plays on a loop in one corner of the exhibit room. Dave Drabkin, a volunteer who worked with Whorf McGuiggan to put the exhibit together, says the film, which depicts the hunt, capture, and rendering of a whale, is very graphic—and perhaps it’s better there’s no sound. It has been a very popular feature though, Drabkin says. “People sit there glued to it.”
An important part of the whaling story is the inherent danger involved in the profession; many of those who set out on whaling trips never returned. For example, after Cook filmed his final voyage, he sold the Viola. In September of 1918, the ship, captained by Joseph Luis, departed on a voyage out of New Bedford, and neither the captain, nor his family or the 24 crewmembers aboard, were ever heard from again. “And there are a million of those stories,” Whorf McGuiggan says. “Hundreds of people from Provincetown died in pursuit of this livelihood. It’s startling to see the toll it had on families in town. Every year from 1820 to 1920, there is some tragic story—some more tragic than others.”
The exhibit also addresses whaling’s decline, which in Provincetown was underway by 1870. Due to factors—including the Civil War’s impact and the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania—by the early years of the 20th century the whaling industry had virtually dried up around the country.
The subject of what’s happening with whales—and those who research the massive mammals—today is also covered. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, for one, is focused on marine research, specializing in rescuing whales that have become tangled in ropes, nets, and other manmade gear. Interestingly, some of the tools the organization uses to disentangle whales look very similar to those used a century ago to kill the leviathans; the points are just turned around.
It is also important to note that Provincetown is a popular spot for whale watch expeditions today, as the waters of Stellwagen Bank off the coast are a feeding ground for whales. “What was an industry focused on their harvest,” McDonagh says, “is now an industry focused on their beauty.”
In piecing the exhibit together, Whorf McGuiggan and Drabkin became immersed in months of research, sorting through tens of thousands of items in the museum’s archives. The two pored over photo albums; they found a ship’s register and pages from a whaler’s journal and even tracked down artwork and borrowed pieces from other museums. “We went from thinking ‘we don’t have very much,’ to ‘we need a bigger museum,’” Drabkin says.
In addition to his role on the historical commission, Borkowski is also a trustee of the museum and chairs its collections committee. He has a keen interest in history and has been researching the subject of Provincetown’s whaling heritage—and its connection to New Bedford, Nantucket, and other whaling ports in the Northeast—for the past five years.
“I felt that our connection to the whaling industry and other communities was lost, not completely, but not examined or highlighted as richly as it has been in other places such as New Bedford and Connecticut,” Borkowski says. “We are not often identified in that ‘golden triangle’ of whaling towns, when in fact we were the third-most productive in terms of sending whaling voyages out.” This new research the museum has conducted, he says, will do a lot to help change that perception. “The exhibit,” Borkowski says, “is just the start of the reclamation of Provincetown’s connection to whaling.”
To complete this fascinating personal journey, Borkowski shares a few more details of his sail aboard the Charles W. Morgan. He says the 113-foot ship constantly shifts and moves in the water, and sounds of all description emanate continually from its masts and sails. Borkowski wondered what it must have been like to travel the open ocean in the dark of night—and of the long length of the journeys. “I’m doing this for seven hours,” he recalls thinking. “There were men who did this for two and one-half years.”
Also, there is the matter of the whales’ majestic size and power. “One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of [whaling],” Borkowski says. “I tried to imagine what it was like to pursue a creature that’s stronger and larger than the ship you are on.”
Borkowski’s sail took place on a Sunday in July. Another group went out on the ship the day before, and they came across some whales. To experience what it might have been like for whalers a century ago, or to get a little closer to these behemoths of the deep, the crew even launched a whaleboat. In the 19th century, the occupants of these small, nimble boats would have gripped harpoons and other weapons as they closed in on their massive prey; on this recent trip, the riders were similarly loaded—with mobile phones and cameras.
The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum is at 1 High Pole Hill Road and is open daily through November 30, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit pilgrim-monument.org.