Many factors combined to end island whaling. Nantucket was the nation’s leading whaling port until the mid-1830s, when New Bedford overtook it. Beginning in the 1840s, a series of physical, economic, technological, and political forces combined to hasten the island’s decline.
Sand. As longer voyages carried Nantucket’s whalemen literally around the world, larger vessels with increased cargo capacities were needed. However, when fully loaded, these ships’ 14- to 16-foot drafts (depth below the water) were too deep to sail over the series of sand bars that blocked the entrance to Nantucket Harbor. The most modern whaleships of the 1830s had to anchor outside the bar and use smaller vessels to lighter their cargoes to the wharf. In 1842, islander Peter Ewer attempted to remedy this problem by designing a floating dry dock to lift vessels over the bar. Called the camels, it was used until 1849, when the convenience and efficiency of the deep-water harbors in New Bedford and elsewhere proved more attractive to whaleship owners, leading to a decline in the number of whalers operating out of Nantucket.
Railroads. In colonial and early Federal America, when all substantial commerce traveled by water, Nantucket was as commercially competitive as any other coastal port town of its size. The railroad networks that began to be constructed on the mainland in the 1830s catalyzed the expansion of inland agriculture and settlement and opened new markets for the industrial products of coastal cities. They provided mainland communities such as New Bedford, whose first rail connection opened in 1840, a new transportation advantage that Nantucket could never match.
Fire. In 1846, American whaling was at its peak. The American fleet totaled 735 vessels, and 75 of these hailed from Nantucket. During this decade, Nantucket’s population reached its nineteenth-century high point, numbering close to 10,000. However, on July 13, 1846, a devastating fire destroyed the heart of the business district and the wharves. Over 300 buildings, approximately one-third of the town, were destroyed, including a substantial percentage of the island’s whaling infrastructure. While the burned section was quickly rebuilt, the fire was a serious economic and emotional blow to the community, accelerating the demise of whaling from Nantucket.
Gold. In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. “Gold Fever” swept the county upon the news of the discovery as men rushed to cash in on the find. No fewer than fourteen vessels sailed from Nantucket to San Francisco that year, loaded with passengers and crews eager to seek their fortunes. By January 1850, 650 Nantucketers—a quarter of the voting population—had headed west. They were joined over the next few years by hundreds more islanders who might otherwise have worked in the island’s or New Bedford’s whale fisheries, contributing to a labor shortage across the industry.
Alternative Products. During the mid-nineteenth century, the development of several alternatives for artificial lighting impacted the demand for whale products. Camphene, a volatile distillate of turpentine and alcohol, was developed in the 1840s. “Town gas,” produced from coal, was introduced in the 1850s, and both New Bedford, in 1852, and Nantucket, in 1854, installed plants to manufacture gas for private and town lighting. Kerosene, first distilled from petroleum tar, also emerged as a less expensive lighting alternative. The discovery of crude oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 introduced a new source for refining kerosene. Whaling on Nantucket was essentially dead by this date, but the gradual development of a nationwide petroleum infrastructure eventually allowed cheap kerosene and other oil derivatives to displace whale oil, sperm oil, and spermaceti candles in American lamps.
War. The Civil War, which began in 1861, was the final blow to Nantucket whaling. The war impacted the industry in two ways. First, 339 island men enlisted in the Union army and navy, which created a further drain on the island’s labor pool. Second, the Confederate States Navy pursued a policy of attacking Union merchant ships at sea. By war’s end, 46 American whaling vessels had been captured or destroyed through Confederate commerce raiding, and the fear of rebel naval activity kept many other whalers in port, resulting in a dramatic reduction in American whale oil production.
In 1869 the bark Oak sailed from Nantucket, the last whaleship to depart, marking the end to nearly two centuries of island involvement in the whale fishery.