Travel/Massachusetts | Nantucket's whale of a past

Travel/Massachusetts | Nantucket's whale of a past


After disembarking from the ferry that had delivered us to this crescent-shaped island, we joined the throngs of day-trippers as they hastened away from the wharf and made their way toward Main Street and its exclusive shops, star-rated eateries and artist-owned galleries. Unlike most, however, we turned away from Main and headed, instead, to what many consider the soul of Nantucket.

On any given day in the summer, the population of Nantucket Island can balloon to nearly 60,000 from its usual year-round residence of 7,000. Vacationers flock to this small Atlantic isle 30 miles off of the coast of Cape Cod seeking miles of pristine beaches, gourmet food, historic neighborhoods and the sheer beauty of this pint-sized island.

However, long before it became a fashionable summer getaway, it harbored one of the wealthiest populations in America by excelling at a very bloody business. For nearly 100 years — from the mid-1700s to the late 1830s — Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world.

From the thick cobblestone streets, laid down to ease the way of the two-wheeled, horse-drawn carts laden with oil casks that continually shuttled from wharf to factory, to the stately, pale gray cedar shake homes and old mansions of brick with their rooftop widow-walks that allowed lonely wives to search the oceanic horizons for any sign of their sea-going husbands, Nantucket is the product of the business of whaling.

Nantucket sent her men and boys seaward for upward of four years to seek out the largest animals on earth whose rendered blubber produced the oil that drove a growing nation.

Herman Melville, author of "Moby Dick," wrote, "For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me."

The evidence and story of this bygone era can be experienced at the Nantucket Historical Association's Whaling Museum. Located on Broad Street and housed in the original 1847 Hadwen & Barney spermaceti candle factory, where candles were once made from whale oil, the museum immerses visitors into Nantucket's famous and infamous past.

Upon venturing into its airy and well-lit environs, we were greeted by a well-versed, chatty octogenarian who regaled us with the story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaler. Stove-in by a sperm whale in 1820, the ship sank, leaving 20 crewmen adrift in the vast Pacific in three whaleboats with limited supplies. The harrowing true tale of the survivors was the basis for Melville's "Moby Dick."

The story is driven home even more vividly when viewing the 46-foot bull sperm whale skeleton, the museum's centerpiece, as it dives dramatically from the ceiling toward a fully-rigged open whale boat half its size.

On Jan. 1, 1998, the 46-foot whale died on the shoreline of Siasconset Beach at the east end of the island. After months of being meticulously cleaned and pieced together, the skeleton was installed in the museum.

As I viewed an impressive collection of whaling tools, including harpoons, lances and cutting-in tools surrounding the display, I was amazed at both the gruesome effectiveness and surgical proficiency of the instruments. It's a stark reminder of a treacherous business.

Among the many other collections at the museum, one of the more artistic is its collection of scrimshaw. Scrimshaw is the art of carving images onto ivory — in this case mostly whale teeth, bones and walrus tusks.

Whalers, left to their own devices on long trips, would carve stunningly creative images and designs into the ivory for loved ones back home. I found the intricate designs, carved with the use of a simple jackknife, in the cramped quarters of a rolling and pitching ship, to be amazing.

Another collection produced by boredom is their Nantucket Lightship Baskets. Originally woven on whaling vessels, these multi-purpose baskets were perfected by idle crewmen aboard the Nantucket Lightships. The creative baskets evolved into decorative handbags for sweethearts and spouses on Nantucket. Today, you can still find Nantucket Lightship Baskets being created locally, as we returned home with a couple examples.

Still in place is the two-story beam press that was used to compress spermaceti for candles. The giant apparatus was used to extract oil from the spermaceti, much like pressing oil from olives. The remaining waxy substance was made into candles. Burning longer, cleaner and brighter, the spermaceti candle was the height of candle-making technology for Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. At one point, before the advent of kerosene, Nantucket sold 35,000 boxes of candles a year.

Today, the museum's holdings run to more than 20,000 artifacts comprising hundreds of paintings, prints and drawings, furniture and more than 2,500 whaling implements reflecting the great heritage of the island and its people.

The objects span the course of Nantucket's whaling history, when its single-minded pursuit of the sperm whale made it, for a brief time, the whaling capital of the world.

As we stood atop the museum's rooftop observation deck, we could look across the artistry of the undulating stone-paved boulevards, the charismatic gas street lamps and impressive 18th-century sea captains' homes with their widows' walks. Much of Nantucket's personality was shaped by the whaling industry and its fortunes.

Shifting our gaze, we looked down on the harbor, enjoying the view of dozens of idle pleasure craft while imagining what it was like to see the harbor filled with a multitude of whaling ship masts so long ago.

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Frank Hosek of Bourbonnais is director of human resources at Carpet Weavers Inc. in Champaign. His hobbies include travel, reading, writing and photography.

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