During the great age of sail, there were many seaports along the New England coast that supported maritime industries. The Port of Gloucester in Massachusetts is well known for its fishing fleet. New Bedford and Nantucket are famous for their once large whaling fleets. Today Mystic, Connecticut is nationally known for its seaport and the last surviving whaling ship, Charles W. Morgan. But there is a port and ship that once were also important but today are almost unknown.
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Just up the coast from Mystic, the Pawcatuck River in Westerly with its shallow and twisting channel seems an unlikely place for a shipbuilding industry but for over two-hundred years the Pawcatuck River was a major shipbuilding center. Over 240 commercial sailing vessels, many large ships, and later steamboats were constructed along its banks. The Pawcatuck River also supplied a steady flow of ship’s masters and crews for the maritime trades.
The vessels were launched in the typical fashion of stern first into the river. The larger vessels were launched without the rudder to avoid ripping it off in the shallow water. After launching, the builders would wait for a high tide to float the vessels downriver.
The larger ships had barrels lashed along their sides to make them more buoyant. The float downstream could be a difficult process. A strong wind blowing up the river could delay the trip, which normally took a couple of days, but in bad conditions could take weeks. Once downstream the ships were rigged and ballasted for the sea.
In spite of the difficulties, shipbuilding thrived on the Pawcatuck River. Some vessels were built for the Newfoundland cod fishery, others for the whaling industry. Commerce needed ships to move passengers and freight along the coast as there were few roads at the time. The coastal schooners were the tractor-trailers of their day, moving raw materials to industry and manufactured goods from the many local mills to their markets.
The high attrition rate of vessels was a reason for the need for new ships. Before the 20th-century there were few aids to navigation, no electronics or radar, and many areas were poorly or not charted at all. Shipwrecks and running aground were common occurrences along with storms and hurricanes that sank ships. Seafaring was a dangerous profession. Contributing to the losses was the wood-eating Teredo worm which attacked the large wooden hulls causing them to lose strength.
Of the many shipyards on both sides of the Pawcatuck, the two largest were the Silas Greenman & Co. off Margin Street in Westerly on the east side of the river and the George Sheffield & Sons yard off Mechanic Street in Pawcatuck on the west side of the river.
In 1842 the Silas Greenman yard built the most famous ship on the Pawcatuck River, the whaleship Charles Phelps, later renamed the Progress. She was built for Mr. Charles P. Williams of Stonington, Connecticut, and sailed out of Stonington. She was a foot longer than the Charles W. Morgan at 107.6 feet in length and was also about 50 tons heavier at 362 tons capacity. The cost of building the Phelps was reported as $3,258 for a vessel that would return to her owners more than $315,000 in whale oil and bone.
The Charles Phelps made five profitable whaling voyages out of Stonington, Connecticut before being sold out to the United States Merchant Fleet. On her first cruise of only 583 days, she returned with a cargo valued at $41,870, a small fortune at the time. As a merchantman, she made at least one voyage from New London, Connecticut to the South Seas with coal and returned with a cargo of Guano.
In 1861, twenty years after her launching, she was sold to the U.S. Government for the so-called “Stone Fleet,” to help block southern ports during the Civil War. However, she must have been extremely well built as she was considered to be in too good a condition to be sunk. She instead was used in the South Atlantic as a supply ship. She carried ammunition, coal, gun parts, and various other stores. At some time during the war, she carried one 32 pounder cannon.
The Charles Phelps took part in the famous Battle of Ironclads in Hampton Roads, Virginia, the most noted and, arguably the most important naval battle of the American Civil War. The battle was between the Confederate ironclad Virginia and the Union ironclad Monitor.
During the battle, the Virginia faced a number of guns from the Union naval fleet. The Phelps was listed in naval records as, “Charles Phelps, armament – one gun”. It’s interesting to speculate what part she might have played in this historical event. Also interesting to note is that during the war a large percentage of her crew was made up of blacks that were either former or freed slaves.
After the Civil War, the Phelps was sold to a Mr. Brightman for $3,600 and renamed the Progress. She was repaired in New Bedford and sailed out of that port as a whaler for a number of years. During this time she took part in the whaling disaster of 1871.
The whaling disaster of 1871 became national headline news after the American whaling fleet, numbering 33 ships, became trapped in the Arctic. There were 1,219 people on board the ships, many being women and children, the families of the whalers. The whaling industry was in decline from overfishing and from the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859. One of the last places that commercial numbers of whales could be found was in the Bering Sea, north of Alaska, but it was a dangerous area because of the movement of the Arctic pack ice.
40 whale ships passed north through the Bering Straits in search of bowhead whales in June 1871. By August the vessels sailed as far as Point Belcher before the weather changed reversing the normal wind pattern and pushing the pack ice toward the Alaskan coast. Seven ships were able to escape to the south but 33 others were trapped.
Within two weeks the pack had tightened around the vessels crushing four ships. Not wanting to wait any longer for the ice to retreat all 1,219 people aboard the ships evacuated in small whaleboat with a three-month supply of provisions. They had to cross 70 miles of ocean and ice flows. The survivors were eventually brought to safety by the seven ships that had escaped the ice to the south. Amazingly, there were no casualties.
Of the seven whalers that escaped, one was the Progress. The ships were forced to dump their catch and equipment overboard to make room for survivors on the return trip to Honolulu. The Progress was able to take over 220 passengers onboard. This disaster effectively ended the whaling era in America. Recently almost 150 years later NOAA has discovered two of the sunken whaleships intact on the Arctic Ocean floor.
Later, after returning to New Bedford, the Progress was purchased by a group of investors for the 1893 Chicago World Exposition. She was
towed and sailed through the Great Lakes to Chicago and while at the exposition served as a floating whaling museum. When the exposition ended, no longer of any value to anyone, she was towed out onto Lake Michigan and sunk. What a sad end to this proud ship.
Out of over 240 sailing vessels built on the Pawcatuck since 1681, the Charles Phelps was the queen of the Pawcatuck River ships. She had a remarkable career that spanned over 50 years when most ships of her time lasted only a few.
I, for one, would love to one day see a replica of this extraordinary vessel built to honor Westerly’s almost forgotten maritime heritage. It would be a thrill to see her tall masts once again outlined against the sky.