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June 26, 2017

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Civil War whaling ship launching in US after US$7 million overhaul

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut--It survived countless storms and raids by secessionist Confederates during the American Civil War while taking crews across unchartered oceans in search of whales whose oil lit the world.

The Charles W. Morgan, the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship and America's oldest merchant ship, is hitting the water again after a nearly US$7 million, 5-year restoration project at Mystic Seaport.

"She is, if you will, an authentic way to enter the past," said Matthew Stackpole, the ship's historian. "The Morgan makes 200 years of American maritime history come alive. It reflects really so much about the way this country developed. It's absolutely thrilling to watch this ship come to life again."

The 380-ton, 32-meter-long ship will be lowered into the Mystic River on July 21, the 172nd anniversary of the vessel's original launch in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Work will continue on the ship, which is expected to visit historic ports in the northeastern New England states next year, including those in Boston; New Bedford, Massachusetts; New London, Connecticut; Newport, Rhode Island; Provincetown, Massachusetts.; and Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.

The ship, a National Historic Landmark, made 37 voyages over 80 years starting in 1841 across every ocean in the world from the heyday to the waning days of whaling. It developed a reputation early on as a lucky ship, escaping the fate of other ships destroyed by storms and Confederate raids.

One of its crews was stranded in Russia after their boat was dragged by a whale and they lost the Morgan. By the time they got back to San Francisco, the crew members — who were presumed dead — got to read their own obituaries, Stackpole said.

The Morgan was among some 2,700 ships that hunted for whales for 200 years. Oil from whales played a crucial role in the early American economy and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, both as a lubricant and as profits from the industry were plowed into newly emerging manufacturing.

The ship offers modern-day lessons, Stackpole said.

"The quest for energy is a relevant story today as it was in her lifetime," he said. "Her cargo today is history; it's not oil anymore in all its multifaceted complicated aspects."

Mystic acquired the ship in 1941 and since then, 20 million museum visitors have stepped foot on it. It has been restored before but nothing as extensive as the latest project, which involved 34 full-time workers and others.

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