Located some one hundred-twenty miles up the Hudson River, it would seem to have been an unlikely site for a whaling port. However, the whaling industry out of Nantucket Island had been decimated during the Revolutionary War. Prior to the conflict, an estimated 150 whaling vessels worked out of that port. By the end of the War for Independence, the fleet had been reduced down to about 16 ships.
In 1783, two brothers from Nantucket, Seth and Thomas Jenkins, raised funds and sailed up the Hudson River, in search of property from which they could set up a whaling and shipping company. They chose to purchase land at Claverack Landing, a small farming community with two bays at its riverfront; they were deep enough to accommodate ocean sailing vessels.
The Jenkin brothers and their families were quickly joined by others who ultimately got together and formed a new city, called Hudson. By 1786, its new harbor hosted some 25 whaling ships. Just four years later, Hudson was designated a United States port of entry. The city’s commerce blossomed. With easy access to nearby forests and farm products, the community’s shipbuilding industry produced 75 vessels from 1784 to 1827. The city also had a sail-making factory and whale oil processing firms that produced lamp oil and candles. Between 1785 to 1796, sixteen whaling vessels sailed out from the city’s docks.
In 1832, short-lived whaling industries were established in Poughkeepsie and Newburg. During the following year, three whalers had sailed out of Poughkeepsie: the Siroc, New England and Vermont. The Siroc was wrecked off the tip of Africa, but the other two returned to port with whale oil. However, with the arrival of the Vermont, it was learned that her captain had been killed in a conflict with a mutinous sailor.
Voyages aboard one of the larger whaling ships could easily last three to four years. It was a dangerous occupation with long periods of boredom, followed by a hair-raising pursuit of their quarry aboard a small whaleboat. Injuries were common and death was always lurking. In addition, a large number of whaling vessels were lost to storms and other hazards.
In search for a whale, a lookout was posted from the crow’s nest for about two hours at a time, from sunrise to sunset. When a whale was spotted, the lookout on-duty shouted “there she blows.” Crewmen quickly assembled and whaleboats were launched. The chase was on!
If the wind was blowing from the right direction, a sail was raised and the chase proceeded. Often however, the boat was propelled by oarsmen. In an effort to beat other whaleboats to the quarry, the oarsmen had to be careful not to splash their oars. Otherwise, the sound could prompt the whale to swim out of reach or dive to deeper water.
From the whaleboat’s bow, the harpooner stood ready. When in range, he plunged his whale iron (harpoon) into the whale’s blubber. One end of the line was attached to the harpoon and the other, a long coil, was tied to the bow. Propelled by the wounded whale, the small boat lunged forward, sometimes taking the crew for a wild “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”, occasionally at speeds of up to 20+ mph.
Once the whale was exhausted, a spear was driven into its vital parts, killing the enormous creature. The real work then began. If the whaleship could not approach the whaleboat, the oarsmen dug in and towed their 50 or more ton catch back to the whaler. Once hauled aboard, everyone aboard the ship participated in processing the valuable prize. In 1841, most whale oil was said to have been worth 33.5 cents per gallon while the much sought-after sperm whale’s oil could bring 95 cents per gallon. Whalebone was priced at 20 cents per pound. Their value, like that of petroleum, fluctuated according to the demand and availability.
In 1833, the Poughkeepsie Telegraph reported that the Hudson Whaling Company’s whaler, the Alexander Mansfield, had returned to port with “1,500 barrels of whale oil and 50 barrels of sperm oil. There were a number of other such success for the company. Typically, after deducting the cost of the voyage, the ship’s owners took about 60 percent of the profits and the captain earned about 1/8th of the profits. The lowest rank crewmen might at the same time be paid only $25 for their entire voyage.
In 1841, the vessel Newark owned by Poughkeepsie’s Duchess Whaling Company, returned with 2,600 barrels of whale oil. However, by the mid 1800s, all of Hudson River’s whaling activities came to an end. Kerosene had begun replacing whale oil. Hudson Valley whaling had lasted 60 years.
Whaling in the United States had begun in New England during the 17th century. Early European settlers learned near-shore whaling techniques from Native Americans. In its heyday, whaling was carried out from 10 Connecticut ports: Bridgeport, East Haddam, Groton, Hartford, Mystic New Haven, New London, Norwich, Stamford and Stonington. By far, Stonington was the state’s busiest whaling port. Rhode Island’s whaling ports included Bristol, Greenwich, Newport, Portsmouth, Providence, Tiverton and Warren. Newport was that state’s top whaling port. New York’s included Cold Springs, Greenport, Hudson, New York City, Newbury and Poughkeepsie with the state’s busiest at Sag Harbor. However, New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts, toped the entire list in number of active ships and voyages from their harbors.
Within our region, there are several museums that provide an opportunity to examine the whaling history up-close. Located in Mystic, Connecticut, visitors to the Mystic Seaport Museum, the Nation’s largest maritime museum, can explore the 1841 whaling vessel, Charles W. Morgan. Designated in 1966 as a National Historic Landmark, the 106 feet, 11 inches long ship made “37 voyages, most lasting three or more years. The vessel is the last of an American whaling fleet that numbered more than 2,700 vessels.”
The Hudson River Maritime Museum, at Kingston, New York, has exhibits on Henry Hudson including the river’s maritime, industrial and ecological history.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, focuses on the region’s whalers as well as the history of international whaling.
Mystic Seaport Museum: https://www.mysticseaport.org/
Hudson River Maritime Museum: http://www.hrmm.org.
New Bedford Whaling Museum https://www.whalingmuseum.org/