Mike Vogel: The Light from the Whale

Charles-W-Morgan portrait

Charles W. Morgan

“Early in the 19th century, Charles W. Morgan—the man, not the National Historic Landmark whaleship— sent a shipment of sperm oil on its way from the wharves of New Bedford to the lighthouse in Buffalo. In doing so, he set in motion a chain of transportation links that included the century’s foremost engineering marvel, committed the product of a hazardous sailing occupation to a use for mariner safety, and probably made a little money to use in building his namesake vessel.

“Sperm oil—a vastly different substance from the whale oil rendered from blubber—was the primary fuel for lighthouse lamps for decades. Eventually, it was overrun by new technologies. So were square-rigged whaleships. And lighthouses. And the whaling industry.

“What remains is the history, the heritage—and a few tangible links to the past. The Charles W. Morgan, launched in 1841 and named for its builder and principal owner while he was away on business, still exists, a carefully-tended museum ship at Mystic Seaport. So does the even older 1833 Buffalo Lighthouse that once burned oils brought back by America’s world-leading whaling fleet.

“And, this year, the Charles W. Morgan—now completely restored— even sailed again, on her 38th voyage. Sailing in her was the keeper of the also-restored Buffalo Lighthouse: me. Funny how life works, sometimes, whether it’s the life of a ship or the life of a person.

“The bill of lading Morgan penned at his desk in New Bedford that day, sending barrels of precious oil trundling westward along wagon routes and the new and marvelous Erie Canal, added a drop to a vast river of light-giving fluids that lasted until the petroleum industry began its rise in the middle of the 19th century. Sperm oil, the brightest and cleanest-burning fuel available, was the illuminant of choice for the U.S. Light-House Establishment until cheaper post-Civil War replacements were found in vegetable and mineral oils: colza or rapeseed, lard oil, and kerosene.”

Read the full article: The Light from the Whale from The Keeper’s Log. Volume XXX No. 4 Fall 2014.