How Do You Buy a Whale Ship?
By Elizabeth Marriott, Collections & Exhibits Coordinator
The Whaling Museum's archives offer insight into the process of purchasing a vessel for use as a whaleship.
In 1843, Cold Spring Harbor was in need of an additional whaling ship. Its ships were all at sea, and the Cold Spring Whaling Company was looking to expand.
At this time, few ships were built for whaling; instead whaling companies bought trading vessels such as packet ships and retrofitted them for whaling. (Of Cold Spring Harbor's 9 vessels, only 1 - the NP Tallmadge - was originally built for whaling.)
The best converted whaleships maximized speed and carrying capacity. Packet ships were designed to hold large, heavy cargo and could be easily adapted to hold oil casks. Typically the biggest modification needed to convert a trading vessel to a whale ship was adding the tryworks - a brick furnace with giant cast-iron kettles used to render blubber into whale oil.
The Cold Spring Whaling Company rehired Captain William H. Hedges, a captain from East Hampton who successfully led several whaling voyages for Cold Spring Harbor. He met some feisty whale in his lifetime: a whale he harpooned struck the head of his whaleboat and tossed him into the water, where his boat crew hauled him to safety. Hedges traveled to New Bedford to inquire about vessels for sale. At the time, New Bedford was one of the busiest ports in the country and it wasn’t unusual to find 4 or 5 vessels for sale at any one time.
This 1843 letter to Walter R Jones (part-owner of the Cold Spring Whaling Company) from Captain Hedges gives us insight into the process, where he describes ships for sale including cargo space, speed, and major repairs in the ship’s history.
New Bedford March 28th 1843, Noon
Dear WR Jones Esq,
I arrived in this place yesterday and find several ships for Sale – namely – Ship Trident, old New York Ships with 1000 barrels carries want coopering and ... sails- repaired 8 years ago in 4 or 6 years will want new bench... fitting for whaling prices $14,000. The Ship Herald – 303 tons frame owned by A,O, S, Nye thoroughly repaired 4 years ago and pronounced as good as new from the carpenters hands ... otherwise good for 8 years, her moors & rigging mostly new ... looks well priced..."
Based on Hedges' description, compare these three ships for sale:
Hedges was most excited about the possibilty of buying the Roman.
"The ship has all her spars ... the lines, rigging, and all looks good for some years - I have made my inquires from the men who worked on her at building, and who at the Whaling Ship Office and have blinded them as much as possible by telling them she was valued to[o] high for our Company yet all say she is cheap- [illegible] at N. Bedford
They had an offer of $ 16000 cash yesterday by Cap Allen, N London... Mr. Jones is willing for us to have her if we will take her at 17000 $ which he says is the least fraction he will take and thinks if she is not sold to fit her soon for whaling, he then came to this conclusion to suit the others concerned, but says he will not sacrifice any more on her than to do so ... there is one or more people in N London who want her and intend to have her- and probably will in a few days if we do not conclude to take her at the $17,000.
I think her in all respects the cheapest ship in this part that I have heard from if she is sound- and they have not the least doubt of that...
I shall await an answer- hoping that you will write to have the bargain closed and to have Mr. J H Jones come on soon- please inform me of what course to pursue....
Your most obedient and humble servant- W.H. Hedges"
The expense must have been too high in the end, because Captain Hedges left New Bedford without purchasing any ship. Based on the expense account he submitted to the Cold Spring Whaling Company, Hedges arrived in New Bedford on March 27th and returned to Cold Spring in June.
Hedges did recruit a boatsteerer - so the trip was not a complete loss! Ultimately, the company went on to purchase the Nathaniel P. Tallmadge, likely at a good price from the floundering Dutchess Whaling Company in Poughkeepsie, who was trying to stave off bankruptcy. Fully outfitted, this whaler was ready to go.
Hedges commanded the Tallmadge on his last voyage from 1843-1845. Hedges and his crew still faced feisty whales when a whale smashed a whaleboat gunwale. The boat was towed back to the ship with rapid bailing and clothes stuffed into the hole. Hedges retired from the sea and opened a store with his brother-in-law in Plattsburgh.
All together, the Tallmadge made four successful voyages from 1843-1855, bringing in a total of 8,410 barrels of whale oil, 245 barrels of sperm whale oil, and 53,390 pounds of bone before being sold in New York City. The ship carried freight to and from New Orleans; a year later, she was rebuilt as a bark, renamed Norwood, and sold abroad.
Find out more about Cold Spring Harbor's whaling history in Mark Well the Whale by Frederick P. Schmitt - Available in the Museum gift shop
Follow the Whaling Museum's ambition to stay current, and meaningful, and connected to contemporary interests.
Written by staff, volunteers, and trustees of the Museum!