Imagine, if you will, Mattapoisett’s Shipyard Park full of raw white gleaming wooden planks and timbers. Can you hear the cacophony from men and tools being plied in the making of wooden ships? Imagine standing on Water Street looking out towards the harbor and there before you, towering some thirty feet up are the massive ribs of a vessel that would one day sail around Cape Horn heading to the Pacific Ocean hunting whales.
The air would be thickly scented by freshly-cut logs being shaped into various jigsaw-like parts for the boats, as specialized craftsmen pounded long brass spikes into locally sourced pine planks, while others carefully chinked oakum and cotton caulking into the seams. The very air would be alive with the industry of boat building as you stood looking up and up at the soaring structures before you.
On September 16 Seth Mendell described all of this and so much more as he gave a talk on the last whaling ship to be built and launched from a Mattapoisett boatyard – the bark Wanderer.
Mendell said the ship’s construction began in 1877 and it was eased into Mattapoisett Harbor a year later with tugs maneuvering it towards Gifford and Cummings, the owners, in New Bedford where the sails would be installed.
Live oak trunks were shipped north from southern states to Mattapoisett where they would be turned into keels. Mendell talked about the need for these long perfect trees whose branches were shed giving the trees’ cell structure a seamless quality.
Where the gazebo sits today, the keel of the Wanderer rested some 120 feet long. Mendell explained that, as whales in the Atlantic were fished out, sailors, nay hunters, had to travel farther away, requiring ships that could withstand the rigors of open ocean navigation.
The ribs of the vessel were built on the ground and then hoisted into place using teams of oxen pulling block and tackles until high above the workmen rose the skeleton of the vessel. Mendell said that the bow piece had to be solidly constructed to take the waves head on or handle the ice in the colder waters of the Artic.
As if seeing the magnificent bark as it was being constructed before his eyes, Mendell said you could tell when you were near a shipyard by the ringing of the caulking irons. Calling whaleboats “factory ships,” he said the three-masted ships, called barks, carried about 30 men and were between 130 and 150 feet in length.
“The Wanderer had a figurehead,” Mendell said, “… a six-foot tall gilded eagle carved by Henry Purrington.” He said that figurehead is now on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Mendell said, “It was April 16, 1878, a flood tide in the harbor as the Wanderer slid into the ocean.” He asked the audience to join him in imagining a cheering crowd that would have gathered there, one that most likely arrived in Mattapoisett via train, as the Wanderer began its journey, its destiny.
The captain of that first voyage was Captain Heyer whose pregnant wife traveled with him. This bit of sailing history reminds us that women didn’t always stay home walking the widow’s walk waiting for their loved one’s return. Mrs. Heyer, however, had to be taken off the ship and transported to the island of St. Helena due to medical complications. Captain Leighton replaced Captain Heyer as he stayed on shore with his ailing bride. Captain and Mrs. Heyer paid the ultimate price. She passed away in childbirth. The captain returned to port with his infant daughter in arms.
After decades of service to its various owners and captains, the Wanderer was grounded off Cuttyhunk in August 1924.
Holding a place of pride in the Mattapoisett Museum is one of the masts from the Wanderer. Hanging high overhead in the Carriage House, the mast reminds us that Mattapoisett was once a critical center for shipbuilding, a place known around the world for craftsmanship.
Following Mendell’s talk, there was a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the newly created Mendell Gallery in the museum’s cozy room near the Carriage House. Jennifer McIntire, the chairman of the board of directors, announced that the museum would now be known as the Mattapoisett Museum, which the directors believe will be a more welcoming and concise name for the structure, the collections, and the services provided therein.
To learn about upcoming events at the Mattapoisett Museum you may visit www.mattapoisetthistoricalsociety.org.
By Marilou Newell