Greasy Luck ran out. A series of events over a period of about thirty years would see the “nation of Nantucket,” as it was dubbed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, brought to its knees. In the 1830s the petroleum fields of Pennsylvania were producing kerosene, cheaper and more easily obtainable than the liquid gold the whalers pursued. A devastating fire—the Great Fire of 1846—roared through the night, leaving the town a smoldering ruin and hundreds homeless and destitute. The years-long whaling voyages were horrendously costly and the whaling grounds had been over-fished. A sandbar at the entrance to Nantucket’s magnificent harbor prevented the much larger and heavily loaded whaleships from approaching the wharves, and they had to be off-loaded outside the bar or carried over it in an ingenious floating drydock called the “camels.” The mainland ports of New Bedford and Salem had access to the burgeoning railroads. Gold was discovered in California and hundreds of Nantucket men went there to seek their fortunes in the earth as they had been sought in the sea. The Civil War would strike the final blow: almost 400 Nantucket men took up the Union cause, seventy-three of them losing their lives. Their families on Nantucket, with no economic infrastructure in place, would have hard times. The once bustling waterfront was filled with rotting hulks; there was no industry that could succeed or replace the whale fishery. Between 1840 and 1870 the population of Nantucket decreased from almost ten thousand to a little more than four thousand.
The demise of whaling coincided almost exactly with the dwindling influence of the Society of Friends. Torn apart by decades of factionalism, the Quakers faded out of the picture, leaving as heritage the pristine little town — and, of course, two centuries of dynamic history.
Excerpt from “Nantucket in a Nutshell” by Elizabeth Oldham, Historic Nantucket, Winter 2000, Vol. 49. No. 1