Whaling Museum Audio Tour

En español

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1 Welcome and Introduction
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The Nantucket Historical Association, founded in 1894, preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections and properties in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

On this audio tour you will discover Nantucket’s success story through time.  The island of Nantucket, thirty miles at sea, is famous for once having been the whaling capital of the world, then transforming itself into the equally celebrated summer destination that we enjoy today.

2 Time Line
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The time line will introduce you to the island’s earliest inhabitants and lead you through the first settlers who tried an agrarian economy, eventually turned to whaling and ultimately revolutionized island life.

More Time Line stops
Native American History
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According to Wampanoag legend, Nantucket was formed by a great chief named Maushop.  One night as he rested on Cape Cod, he awoke with sand in his moccasins.  He kicked one off, and it flew into the ocean and became Martha’s Vineyard.  Maushop tried to sleep again, but the other moccasin was also filled with sand, so he kicked it out even further into the ocean, thus creating the island of Nantucket.

The history of human habitation on Nantucket traces back approximately 12,000 years to the Paleo-Indian period, predating the time when rising temperatures and sea levels turned gravel hills and sandy outwash plains, deposited by the retreating glacier and meltwaters, into an island.  Over time the erosional and depositional effects of ocean currents and wind influenced the island landscape.

The first inhabitants of Nantucket are unknown to us.  Records suggest that there were as many as 3000 members of the Algonquin tribe, the Wampanoags, living here when the first English settlers arrived in 1659.   The name “Nantucket” is a derivation of a Wampanoag name for island.  In the Algonquin language, the island was called Natokete or “faraway” place.  Through an examination of deeds and records, Nantucket has 86 Native place names, with 31 of these still in common use today. Originally the Wampanoags were hunter-gatherers who would come to the island seasonally for hunting, fishing and some agriculture, returning to the mainland to spend winters with their families in longhouses.  Eventually they settled permanently on the island. The Native population practiced a type of whaling called drift whaling.  Occasionally, a dead or diseased whale would wash ashore and be harvested by the natives providing fat for their diet and materials for carving implements.

The English presence dramatically altered the life of the Native people as they took control of greater portions of the island.  In the first century of coexistence, the Wampanoag population was weakened by disease, alcohol dependency and debt servitude.  An epidemic in 1763 killed 222 of the 358 Native people living on Nantucket.

First Settlers
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The first English settlers arrived on the island in 1659.   They came here for economic opportunities, and were called the proprietors.  The settlers planned to be farmers, raising crops and sheep.  However, Nantucket has very sandy soil and lots of wind, so farming proved to be untenable.  Taking a note from their Wampanoag neighbors, they saw that there were an abundance of whales migrating by the island. The story is told that one Nantucketer, standing on the south shore looking out at the sea, prophetically said, “There is the green pasture where our grandchildren will go for their bread.”

Thomas Mayhew, a Puritan leader, purchased a portion of Nantucket directly from the Native American Indians who inhabited the island.  Mayhew, in turn, sold the island to a group of nine English settlers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. These men were known as the Proprietors, and they purchased the island from Thomas Mayhew, for 30 pounds sterling and two beaver hats.  Mayhew’s compensation is symbolically recorded in the seal of the NHA with a border of 30 coins, two beaver hats and an arrow and a harpoon to represent the island’s native and whaling heritage.

Among the first settlers, was Tristram Coffin, who came to America from Devonshire, England in 1642.  In 1659, he joined eight other men to purchase the island.  Coffin was appointed the first magistrate of the island.  He and his wife, Dionis, had five sons who perpetuated the Coffin family name. The Tristram Coffin medal shows a full-length figure with cane standing on a pedestal displaying the date 1642.  Raised lettering around the edge reads, “Tristram Coffin the first of the race that settled in America.”  In 1881, more than 500 members of the Coffin family gathered on Nantucket for a family reunion.

Mary Gardner Coffin
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Mary Gardner Coffin was the daughter of John Gardner, a relative newcomer to the island.  John Gardner chafed against his status as a half-share property owner and feuded with Tristram Coffin, one of the island founders, and a full share owner of property rights.  The feud ended in 1686 with Mary Gardner’s marriage to Jethro Coffin, Tristram’s grandson.  The marriage and wedding gifts were a symbolic gesture of reconciliation.  The Gardners gave the couple 1.5 acres of land, and the Coffins gave the lumber to build a house as a wedding gift for the couple.  This house, known as the Oldest House is now an NHA property still stands on Sunset Hill.

The portrait of Mary is the oldest portrait in our collection and the oldest known portrait on the island.  It was painted off-island by an itinerant painter of the Pollard Limner School.  Notice that Mary has one brown eye and one blue eye, a characteristic we presume to be correct.

Quakerism on Nantucket
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The first settlers from the mainland felt restricted by the Puritan ethic.  For the first forty years, there was no organized religion on the island.  In 1702, Mary Starbuck, who was officially a Puritan, became interested in Quakerism. She invited a traveling Quaker, John Richardson, to speak in her home, and she invited friends and neighbors to join her.  Mary was a powerful woman in the community, known as “Great Mary”.  She was so influenced by Richardson’s sermon, that she decided to become a Quaker, and many other islanders followed.  Quakerism eventually became the predominant religion from the early-1700s through the mid-1800s.  Quakers considered themselves non-violent in a political sense, but saw no conflict with killing whales.  Melville referred to Nantucket Quakers as “Quakers with a vengeance.”

Meritocracy and Absalom Boston
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Nantucket whaling crews comprised a mix of local and off-island men, mostly Americans but supplemented by Europeans, Azoreans, Cape Verdeans and Pacific Islanders.  The master was nearly always a white man from Nantucket; the mates were often, but not exclusively, islanders.  Because seasoned merchant mariners avoided the tedious and dirty life of whaling, the industry hired many landsmen and provided meaningful economic opportunities for otherwise marginalized workers, particularly black, Native Americans, and poor whites.

Captain Absalom Boston was a leading figure in Nantucket’s African American community in the first half of the 19th century.  He was a third generation islander, and he and his family figured in a number of important milestones toward local racial equality. An uncle, Prince Boston, was involved in the 1773 legal case that set in motion the end of slavery on Nantucket.  When Absalom’s daughter, Phebe Ann, was denied admission to Nantucket High School, Boston began litigation that spurred the desegregation of local schools in 1846.  Boston was the first black whaling captain and with his all-black crew commanded the ship Industry in 1822.

Gold Rush
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The California Gold Rush of 1849 was one of four signal events impacting the decline of Nantucket’s economy:  the shift of whaling to New Bedford beginning in the 1830s, the Great Fire of 1846, and the Civil War being the other three.  Many Nantucket men and ships left in search of gold, and a large fraction never returned.  George Brock came back, though, and it’s a good thing. His daughter was the first curator of the NHA!!

3 Whaling History in Art
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Whaleship Spermo Paintings
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The 296-ton whaling ship Spermo was launched in 1820.  The ship made its only whaling voyage between 1820 and 1823.  These two canvases by J. Fisher depict events from the Spermo’s voyage.  Although we have no information about J. Fisher, he was clearly knowledgeable about whaling and painting. The canvases reveal an eye for detail and are among the earliest oil paintings illustrating American whaling.

Susan Austin Veeder
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Susan Veeder sailed with her husband, Captain Charles Veeder, aboard the ship Nauticon from 1848-1853.  Going around Cape Horn, she visited such places as Chile, Peru, and the Arctic.  Traveling with Susan and her husband were two of their sons.  Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the voyage was the birth and subsequent death of the Veeder’s baby girl.  For Susan, her time at sea was a voyage of discovery.  Her illustrated journal depicts the sights and adventures that most women of her time would never have the opportunity to experience.

4 Whale Skeleton
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As Herman Melville said, “What wonder then that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, would take to the sea for their livelihood?”  In Gosnell Hall you will learn how Nantucketer’s came to dominate the whaling business. During this age of sail, strong men in wooden boats pitched their wits against the largest mammals on earth, and in so doing defined the island and its’ people.

Nantucket achieved prominence in the whaling industry by concentrating on the pursuit of sperm whales, prized for the superiority of their oil.  You are looking at the skeleton of a young adult male sperm whale, 46 feet long.  A fully grown sperm whale can be over 75 feet in length!  On the last day of the year, 1997, this whale was spotted close to shore at the eastern end of the island.  The whale was obviously in distress.  The word went out, and a large crowd gathered.  Many Nantucketers had never seen a sperm whale, the whale that made Nantucket the whaling capital of the world.  On the New Year’s Day, 1998, the dead whale washed ashore. Nantucketer’s determination to keep the whale on the island impressed state and federal representatives who agreed to grant the NHA custody of the skeleton.  The acquisition of the skeleton prompted the building of a new Whaling Museum in 2005.

Notice the head of the sperm whale makes up almost a third of its body.  There are teeth only on the lower jaw, teeth that are using for grabbing prey and swallowing it whole.  Sperm whales are pelagic whales that dive and hunt at great depths. The upper jaw supports the whale’s head case, a reservoir of 300-500 gallons of spermaceti oil, the finest oil in the world.  The skull protects the largest brain on earth.  Unlike most whale species who have two blowholes, sperm whales have one, and when they blow, their spout is at a 45 degree angle slightly out of the left side of its head.

Notice the two small bones that hang from the vertebrae.  Millions of years ago, whales lived on land.  At some point in their evolution, they moved into the sea, presumably for food and safety.  When they lived on land, they had four legs.  Those tiny bones are vestigial leg bones, no longer needed in the ocean.   Melville called sperm whales “the most majestic in aspect” of all whales.

5 Whale Hunt
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When a whaleship departed from Nantucket it was an emotional time.  Most whaling voyages lasted from 2-4 years, frequently rounding Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, and sometimes circumnavigating the world.  When whales were spotted, the whaleboats were launched in pursuit.  The men would race to their assigned whaleboat with a harpooner in the bow, four men to handle the oars, and a boatheader in the stern to steer the boat.  As the whaleboat approached a whale, the harpooner would brace his thigh in the clumsy cleat to give himself stability to throw his harpoon. The harpoon did not kill the whale, but allowed the whaleboat crew to attach to the whale.  A harpooned whale might take off swimming as fast as he could, dragging the whaleboat behind, perhaps at 10-15 miles per hour.  Some of the men hung on to the side of the boat; others bailed water as the boat sped through the waves.  This was the most exciting part of the whale hunt and also the most dangerous.  This was called a Nantucket sleigh ride!

More Whale Hunt stops
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This collection of whaling tools suggests the gory and backbreaking work to harvest oil from the largest mammals on earth.  Cutting-in spades, blubber knives, boarding and mincing knives, were all used to cut up the blubber.  Nantucket blacksmiths made thousands of similar tools to supply the island’s whaleships.

Jaw Bone
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In 1865, Captain William Cash of the whaleship Islander took on board this eighteen-foot sperm whale jaw bone.  Circus promoter P.T. Barnum visited Nantucket in 1866, saw the specimen, and tried to acquire it for “Barnum’s American Museum” in New York City.  Cash refused, donating the jaw bone to the Nantucket Atheneum, an impressive artifact that eventually came to the NHA.

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Once a whale was captured, the work of rendering, or trying out the oil from the blubber began right on the deck of the ship.  Strips of blubber were removed from the whale and boiled into oil in large cast iron trypots.  The trypots were enclosed in a brick furnace on the deck of the ship.   Boiling blubber into oil was an arduous and foul-smelling process that could take several days.  The rendered oil was pumped into barrels and casks and stored below deck.

20th Century Whaling
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In 1869, he bark Oak was the last whaler to sail out of Nantucket, but by then whaling had long since declined on the island.  New Bedford whaling eclipsed Nantucket as early as the 1830s.  With the laying of the transcontinental railroad, the capital of whaling moved once again to San Francisco.  Vessels could hunt the bowhead in the western Arctic and get product to the East Coast markets quicker by rail than by sail.

Norwegian whaling was on the ascendancy starting in the late 19th century.  Commercial whaling expanded dramatically in the 20th century, but it was not an American story. European, Soviet and Asian fleets turned their attention to whales for meat rather than oil and baleen.

Whaling became increasingly efficient.  No longer restricted by wind and sail, nor the speed by which men could row a boat, the new catcher boats were steel-hulled, propeller-driven, and mounted with artillery pieces on their bows.  Steam-powered ships could pursue whales which had been too fast to catch during the age of sail.  Cannons fired massive harpoon projectiles, some with exploding heads, which could kill a whale with a single shot.  Spotter planes could vector in a fleet of catcher boats to destroy whole pods at an alarming rate.

In 1967, the American Cetacean Society became the first group dedicated to end commercial whaling.  It was followed by large national organizations like Greenpeace.  These actions culminated in the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 in the United States and an international ban on commercial whaling in 1986.

6 Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory
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Welcome to the Hadwen and Barney Candle Factory.  Whale oil was the basis of Nantucket’s economy, and America’s first global industry.  There has been a candle factory on this site since 1792.  The first factory burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1846. In the mid-1840s there were roughly twenty-five factories on the island, producing over 850,000 pounds of candles and over one million gallons of oil, products that were shipped all over the world.

More Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory stops
Chilled Spermaceti
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When a whale ship came into port, often after 2 or 3 years at sea, candle factory owners would buy up the barrels and casks of oil and bring the oil to a factory like this, one of twenty-four on the island in 1845, to refine the oil and make candles.  The oil would first be boiled to remove impurities, then put back in barrels and stored outside until the weather turned cold, and the oil began to thicken, or granulate as you see here.

Black Cake and Candle Molds
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After all the sperm oil was extracted and refined, the remaining material was a hard, waxy substance called “black cake”.  At this time the factory converted from refining oil to candle making.  The black cake was boiled, bleached, and poured into candle molds, producing highly valued candles that did not smoke or smell and lasted a long time.

Candle Factory Interactive
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This touch screen will introduce you to the complete process of refining whale oil into the products that made Nantucket the whaling capital of the world.

7 Neptune’s Grotto
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Neptune’s grotto is a magical collection of objects found in and around the sea, displayed in a way that we hope will delight visitors. All museums have curiosities in their collections—items that reflect the travels and varied interests of people in the past. We hope the cases here will echo islanders’ adventures on the world’s oceans.

More Neptune’s Grotto stops
Coco de Mer (Coconut of the Sea)
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This large seed belongs to a gigantic female palm tree found only in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.  Only rotten nuts that are hollow float, so the enormous palms never spread to new shores.  When early sailors found these nuts floating on the water, they thought they came from a tree growing beneath the sea.

Narwhal Skull and Tusk
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Often called the unicorn of the sea, narwhals are beautiful creatures with a long tusk protruding from their heads.  The tusk is actually an enlarged tooth that can grow as long as 10 feet.  Narwhals can be found in the Arctic Ocean and around the coastlines of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia.  Indigenous people of the Arctic have always hunted narwhals which provide a substantial amount of protein for their diets.  They also hunted narwhals for their long, spiraled ivory tooth.

8 Discovery Center
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Families will delight in the transformation of the Discovery Center with a “no touch” interactive experience.  Take a walk back in time through Nantucket Town where you will learn about life in a whaling village. Visit the Curiosity Shop, the harbormaster and other scenes that depict early life on Nantucket.  Then see the model of the Nantucket Railroad as it travels from Town to Sconset and back.  Learn about different species of whales and their behaviors on an interactive screen.

9 Lever Press
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You are looking at a lever press, believed to be the only one left in the world built for whale-oil refining.  Factory workers shoveled chilled, granulated sperm into burlap or hemp bags and loaded the press, with bags placed side by side, a board on top, more bags, until there were approximately 50 bags.  Then the beam was lowered, squeezing the oil from the bags, filling the trough which had a hole in the front corner.  The oil would flow into a cistern in the basement below.  The first pressing, the winter pressing, produced the highest quality and quantity of oil, and was sold for the highest price.  Winter oil was valued for its stable viscosity, and was unaffected by heat or cold.  Winter oil was used in lighthouses and streetlamps in cold climates.  Next,  the process was repeated, reboiling the oil, putting it outside and bringing it in for the spring pressing, which produced oil of lesser quality and quantity, but was still good for lighting and lubrication.  The final pressing was in the summer, and at that point there was very little oil to be extracted, so workers used a screw press.   What was left after the summer pressing was a hard, waxy substance called “black cake”. Now the factory converted to candle making.  The black cake was boiled, bleached, and poured into candle molds, producing highly valued candles that did not smoke or smell and lasted a long time, candles that sold all over the world.

10 Auxiliary Industries
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Looking at Nantucket’s harbor today, it is hard to imagine what it looked like during the whaling era. Sooty factories, warehouses and workshops surrounded the harbor, providing the industries that supported whaling.  The vast majority of the whaling ships were built off-island, but much of the outfitting was done locally.  The smaller whaleboats were more likely to have been built on Nantucket, but not the large whaleships.  Masts and spars spawned an industry of skilled carpenters.  Cooperages manufactured wooden barrels, buckets and casks. In the 1830s there were 22 cooperages turning out thousands of wooden containers.  Ships need miles of rope.  Ten ropewalks turned tons of hemp into rope of a variety of widths and lengths from fishing lines to huge, twisted ropes strong enough to hold heavy anchors, or to bind several tons of whale carcasses to the sides of ships. Blacksmiths worked in hot, fiery forges to turn out harpoons, lances, knives and other implements needed to hunt and dismember whales. Each ship needed twenty to thirty sails, totaling over an acre of sailcloth.  Sail making was highly skilled work requiring three-year apprenticeship.

11 Decline of Whaling
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Beginning in the 1840’s a number of occurrences began the decline of Nantucket’s dominance in the whaling industry.

In 1846, a fire that began at Geary’s hat shop on Main Street destroyed the town’s central business district and hastened the decline of the whaling industry.  The blaze spread out of control, particularly along the oil-soaked wharves.  By sunrise the next day, wharves, whaleships and over 300 buildings across thirty-three acres in the commercial core of town had been destroyed, and 800 islanders were homeless.

The California Gold Rush took many men away from the island and with a declining population there were fewer men to man the whaleships.

During the Civil War 339 Nantucket men enlisted.  Seventy-four never returned.  As a naval blockade, the U.S Navy sank aging whaleships at the entrance to the harbors of Charleston and Savannah.  These ships were dubbed “the Stone Fleet”.  By the end of the Civil War, whaling on Nantucket had virtually ended.

12 Camels
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For centuries, a sandbar blocked the entrance to the harbor, hindering passage of heavily laden vessels.  Shipping merchant, Peter Ewer, decided to solve the problem.  He hired carpenters to make this working model, based on a Dutch invention called “ship camels”.  The full-size camels were 135 feet in length. The camel hulls were filled with water and submerged and connected under the ship.  As the water was pumped out of the camels, they rose and lifted the ship out of the water.  A steamship would then tow the ship over the sandbar and into the harbor.

13 Whale Hunting Around the World
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Whaling has been an important subsistence and economic activity in multiple regions throughout human history. The first known encounters between men and whales are shown as petroglyphs in Korea in 6000 BCE.  The oldest written mention of whaling comes from a Japanese book written in the 7th century.

In 1059, the Basques were among the first people to catch whales commercially.   They dominated the trade for five centuries and were the masters of their day.  By the early 17th century, Holland entered the trade in earnest, adopting new techniques and soon dominated the industry.  Other countries that followed included Britain, France, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia.   Nantucket’s ascendancy began in the 18th century.  After the decline of Nantucket whaling, New Bedford with its’ deep water harbor and access to a railroad, became the next whaling center, followed by San Francisco when the trans-continental railroad was completed.

14 Nantucket and the Water
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Nantucket has always been on the water that surrounds us. Islanders depend upon the water for work, recreation and their connection to the broader world. Ferryboats, past and present, connect Nantucket to points far and near.

Every August, as part of Nantucket Race Week, the little catboats of the island’s beloved Rainbow Fleet, raise their colorful sails and parade around Brant Point.  Originally, a catboat was any boat with a “cat rig”, a single mast well forward supporting a single gaff-headed sail.  Over time, this rig became associated with beamy, shoal-bottomed centerboard boats designed to operate in windy, choppy and shallow waters.

In the early 1900s, there were about forty dories fishing from Sconset.  These were one-man dories, about 13 feet long.  Each fisherman had a fish house on the beach where he dressed and salted his catch; cod, haddock or bluefish. The fish would be kept under salt for several days and then shipped to Boston, Providence and New Bedford.  Fishing by boat has always been an important Nantucket activity, providing year-round sport to residents and fine seafood to restaurants, both on island and off.  From scalloping in the fall and winter months, to summer charter fishing for bluefish and sea bass, anglers delight in the fishing experiences around the island.  Surf casting, clam digging and pond fishing are also popular pastimes among island anglers.

Cherished summer memories are made on Nantucket.  Family fun on the water and beaches include sailing, clam bakes, kite flying, surfing and sunset cocktails are other favorite recreational activities.

15 Transportation
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Surrounded by water and thirty miles at sea, Nantucket has always been dependent on ships to supply goods to the island.  However, planes, trains and automobiles are necessary too!

In 1818 the Eagle was the first steamboat to cross Nantucket Sound.  The Island Home, delivered in 1855, was the first coal-powered steamboat serving Nantucket.  Outfitted with marble-top tables, mirrors, velvet upholstery, and stewardesses, she was a luxurious vessel.  The Island Home ran between Hyannis and Nantucket, and another steamer, the Eagle’s Wing took over the New Bedford-Nantucket route.  Today there are two companies that provide daily ferry service to the island.

Nantucket enjoyed a railway service from 1881 until 1917.  By the 1880s Nantucket had already made the transition from whaling center to resort destination, so a conveyance that could provide transportation to ‘Sconset, at the eastern end of the island and to  South shore beaches without the dusty, jarring ride of a carriage made sense.  Rails and used rolling stock in the form of an engine, tender, and two open-air passenger cars were purchased.  The engine was named Dionis after the wife of one of the original settlers, Tristram Coffin.  The road was a narrow-gauge bed with a three foot distance between the rails.  The fare for a trip to Sconset was 35 cents. Due to a lack of turn tables, the engine always returned to town backwards.

Before automobiles came to the island the town had a substantial number of liverymen, farmers, and waggoneers who depended upon horse-drawn transport, which was an important component of the local economy.  A row of livery stables and horse barns at Steamboat Wharf catered to the horse and buggy business.

Nantucket rolled into the 20th century when Arthur Folger brought the first car, a Stanley Steamer, to the island in 1900. Islanders gazed with curiosity and wonder. Nantucket horses were terrified by the noisy intruders on the quiet town streets.  Thus began a long battle between Nantucket and the automobile, a war that raged in the streets, the courts and the legislature resulting in a ban on automobiles, making Nantucket the only place in the country to successfully outlaw the automobile on town streets until 1918.

In 1913, Clinton Folger brought an Overland touring car to the island so that he could deliver mail to Sconset.   He was free to drive his vehicle on the Milestone Road, but the Selectman prohibited automobiles in town.  Folger had a solution.  As he approached town, he hitched his car to a horse and drove his “horsemobile” through town.

Nantucket’s aviation history began during WWI when convoy shipping from Nantucket to Cape Ann needed planes to search for German u-boats. The first commercial flight arrived on the island in 1927, landing on a pasture.  In 1946, the Navy built a runway for training during WWII.  The modern Nantucket Memorial Airport is now one of the busiest in New England, second only to Logan Airport in Boston.

16 Nantucket Connecting the World
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Nantucket ships traveled all over the world in pursuit of whales, with the crew bringing back souvenirs from their travels.  Ship owners also engaged in trade with Europe, Africa, the Pacific, and Arctic and of course, China.  Fine American homes were decorated with items purchased in China.  Nantucket cargo ships and whalers would bring furs, turtle shells, lumber and specialty food items from the northwest coast of North American and the islands of the Pacific to trade with China.

More Nantucket Connecting the World stops
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The wax figure of the Dauphin of France was brought to Nantucket from France about 1786 by Captain Jonathon Coffin.  He purchased the doll at a convent, and it was represented to him as having been made from a cast of Louis Charles, Dauphin of France, and second son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  While it does portray the Dauphin, it was not made from a cast.

Cave Canem
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Beginning in the 16th century, it became fashionable for affluent young men and some women to visit the cultural capitals of Europe as part of their classical education.  In 1841, Paul Mitchell Jr. withdrew from his family’s whaling business and embarked on a two-year European tour with his friend, the painter William Swain.  Mitchell purchased this decorative panel in Naples.  It reproduces a floor mosaic from a house in Pompeii that was burned by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Chinese Export Cider Jug and Tea Box from Ship Mars
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These items were brought back from China by Uriah Swain on the ship Mars, built on Nantucket in 1800 for the China Trade.  Swain’s son-in-law, James Cary, was aboard and returned to Canton as master of the Rose in 1806.  On his way back from that voyage, he tried a new route past Japan and observed an enormous population of whales.  Unable to capitalize on the discovery until after the War of 1812, two Nantucket captains returned in 1820 to open what became known as the Japan Grounds, one of the richest sources of sperm whales.  See Cary’s nephew William’s account of being wrecked in Fiji in the Pacific part of this room.

Chinese Export Porcelain Bowl from HMS Bounty
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In February 1808, the Boston sealer Topaz, commanded by Captain Mayhew Folger of Nantucket, stopped at Pitcairn Island and accidentally discovered what had become of the mutineers of the infamous HMS Bounty.  Captain Folger received this Chinese export porcelain bowl from John Adams, the only mutineer left.  It most likely belonged to one of the Bounty’s officers, perhaps Captain Bligh himself.

Lei Niho Palaoa
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Originally, these objects were Royal Hawaiian pendants and carried significant chiefly power and personal prestige.  Before contact with outside cultures, only a person of royal birth would have been allowed to wear such a necklace without harm.  After 1819, beliefs about the protection of one’s supernatural power diminished, resulting with the production of necklaces for the foreign market.  This necklace made of human hair, olana plant fiber and a walrus tooth ivory pendant, was acquired by Dr. Benjamin Sharp while on a Hawaiian expedition.

17 Essex Gallery
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The whaleship Essex, captained by George Pollard, left here in 1819.  While hunting whales in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the ship was rammed and sunk by an eighty ton sperm whale.  Thousands of miles from land, the twenty crew members took to three small, open whaleboats.  For roughly ninety days, as they tried to sail to the coast of South America, the men endured unimaginable hardships, including fierce storms, starvation, death and cannibalism.  At the end there were eight survivors.  The true story of the Essex disaster was Herman Melville’s inspiration for writing the great American novel, Moby Dick and the award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, by Nantucketer Nathaniel Philbrick.

First mate Owen Chase was one of the survivors.  Chase, an able, if somewhat opinionated whaleman, was working his way up to become a captain.  During the voyage of the Essex there were several disagreements between Captain Pollard and his First Mate.  At the time of the ramming, Chase was aboard the Essex making some necessary repairs to his whaleboat. As the Essex began to sink, Pollard who had fastened onto a whale, released the whale, and hurried back to the ship, shouting, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”  Chase responded, “We have been stove by a whale!”

Upon his return to the island, Chase wrote a book about the disaster of the Essex.  Chase sited his need to provide for his family as his motivation for publication.  Shortly after his return, he left for New Bedford where he achieved success, eventually becoming a captain.  When he returned to his island home on Orange Street in his later years, he suffered frequent nightmares, debilitating headaches, hallucinations.  He hoarded food and water, and ultimately he went insane.

One of the Essex survivors was a young man named Benjamin Lawrence.  During his unbearable time in the whaleboat, Benjamin collected stray fibers and hair, braiding and twisting them into this tiny piece of string.   He vowed that if he ever made it back to Nantucket safely, this would be a reminder of the terrible ordeal that the men suffered.  It is the sole surviving artifact from the wreck of the Essex.

18 Fresnel Lens
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The Sankaty Head light was built in 1849 on the Siasconset bluff at the eastern end of the island.  It was the first American lighthouse to be designed and built with a Fresnel lens. The apparatus was purchased in Paris.  Its’ brilliant light was visible up to twenty-four miles away and was referred to by mariners as “the blazing star”. Frenchman Auguste Jean Fresnel created lenses using a central piece of glass called a bull’s eye, surrounded by concentric rings of glass projecting beyond one another.  The design allowed five times more light to be transmitted than traditional reflector technology.

19 Town Clock
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The Town Clock was given to the town in 1881 by William Hadwen Starbuck.  For over 80 years the clock recorded the time from the Unitarian Church tower.  It continued until 1957 when the works were replaced by an electric movement that ran the clock, as well as controlling the 52 strikes at 7:00 am, noon, and 9: 00pm, formerly done by the bell ringer. Why 52 strikes?  When the bell was installed the town decreed that it would be rung for 3 minutes.  The bell ringer noted that was 52 strikes.

20 Andrea Doria
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At 11:10 pm on May 7, 1915 45 miles south of Nantucket the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria bound for New York City and the eastbound Swedish liner Stockholm collided in a heavy Atlantic fog.  1, 650 passengers and crew were rescued, while 46 died.  The Andrea Doria was widely regarded as one of  the most beautiful liners of the era with three outdoor swimming pools and a dazzling array of paintings, tapestries and murals.

21 Scrimshaw and Decorative Arts Gallery
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Scrimshaw is the art of engraving images on whale teeth, baleen and bone.  This folk art was practiced by men aboard whaleships during the 19th century.  During long voyages, often 2-5 years, whalers would often turn to scrimshaw as a way of passing the time when they were not busy pursuing whales.  They produced decorative objects and utilitarian devices.  These were often enhanced, decorated and combined with other materials like wood, mother-of-pearl, and abalone shell.  This shipboard art was a unique product and is cherished as an expression of appreciation for nautical prowess.

Nantucket has had a dynamic heritage of decorative arts and crafts reaching into the 20th century and extending far beyond its geographical boundaries.

More Scrimshaw and Decorative Arts Gallery stops
Burdett Tooth
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Edward Burdett is the earliest identified American engraver of sperm whale teeth, engraving in the 1820s. Born on Nantucket, Burdett went whaling at the age of seventeen on the Nantucket ship Foster.  He rose through the ranks on successive voyages.  His last voyage was fatal when Burdett became entangled in a harpoon line and was dragged overboard.

Susan’s Teeth
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Frederick Myrick is the earliest known scrimshander to sign and date his work; as a result, his pieces have become highly prized by collectors and museums.  Myrick has shown exquisite detail of the ship Susan.  On the back side he has inscribed. “Death to the living, long life to the killers, Success to sailor’s wives and greasy luck to whalers.”

Archer Dressing Case
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Captain James Archer made this spectacular dressing case for his third wife, Mary, during a whaling voyage aboard the bark Afton out of New Bedford between 1853 and 1856.  The voyage yielded only 336 barrels of sperm oil and 67 barrels of whale oil, suggesting the reason why Archer had so much free time to make this gift.  The case is said to be assembled from 1,900 individual pieces of wood, metal and ivory.

Jagging Wheels
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Jagging wheels (or pie crimpers) were used to cut and decorate pastry dough, both for fruit pies and meat pies.  Each jagging wheel is unique, often carved with fantastical shapes including unicorns, snakes and sea monsters.  The simplest form is shaped like a lollipop and is often referred to as a “Nantucket” crimper. Some include forks for pricking the dough.  Jagging wheels were a fine and useful gift to bring home from a whaling voyage.

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Usually made of whalebone or baleen, busks were used as stays in women’s corsets.  The busks are flexible and when inserted into corset pockets, they bend to produce a fashionable hour glass figure.  Corset busks were not to be given casually.  In the Victorian era, scrimshaw busks were customarily intended for a wife or fiancée, only women with whom the sailor had a degree of intimacy.  Many are inscribed with hymn texts, serious poetry, images of flowers, and especially hearts of all kinds as a token of love.

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One of the most difficult items to make, in terms of time and labor expended, is the swift, an ingenious, expandable yarn winder.  A skein of yarn would be placed over the swift which expands and contracts to hold the yarn in place.  The device spins as the yarn is wound.  There is even a cup on top to place the ball of yarn.  With dozens of moving parts, no two swifts are exactly alike, but all were a practical gift to bring to a wife, mother or sister

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More than serving as aids to mobility, canes were fashion accessories for men and women.  The NHA has over 150 scrimshaw canes with components of whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen, and other ornamental materials.  Women’s canes tend to be smaller, shorter and lighter. Just as busks were produced for women back home, canes were made on shipboard in staggering numbers for fathers, grandfathers and gentlemen friends.  Some are gracefully carved and beautifully balanced, with proficient sculptures of birds, animals, human hands, or serpents on the grips.  The shaft could be wood or a solid piece of pan or jaw bone, decoratively carved, fluted or spiraled.

Walter Folger Clock
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This tall-case clock was made by Walter Folger Jr., in the first half of the 19th century.  Folger was renowned as a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, and clock and instrument maker, in addition to working as a lawyer and serving a term in Congress.  His most famous work is this astronomical clock, built over a two-year period.  The clock is designed to tell the minutes and hours of the day; the day of the month; the year; the motion and declination of the sun; the motion, phases and declination of the moon; and the progression of the sun through the zodiac.

Lightship Baskets
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Lightship baskets originated in the 19th century aboard Nantucket lightships, or floating lighthouses, which warned sailors away from dangerous shoals.  Lightship crews were deployed for thirty days at a time and had little to do beyond making sure that the lights on the top of the masts stayed lit.  The men began making baskets as a way to pass the time, in addition to being a source of extra income.  Taking inspiration from the splint baskets made by local Native Americans, and from the barrels made by coopers, they constructed sturdy utilitarian baskets to be used for marketing and gardening.  Eventually lids were added, often with decorative scrimshaw on top. Today, lightship baskets have been redesigned into innovative shapes and sizes, paying homage to the men who started it all.  To learn more about lightship baskets please visit the extensive exhibit at the Hadwen House.

22 Nantucket Today
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As whaling declined, Nantucket had to reinvent itself, and so began the birth of the tourist industry, promoting the island as a beautiful, healthy summer resorts.  Steamship service from New Bedford started in 1874. A single narrow-gauge railway was installed in 1881 connecting to the South shore, and later to Sconset at the eastern end of the island.  Actors, artists and writers from Boston and New York City began to gather on the island creating a vibrant Art Colony.

In addition to the beautiful beaches and moors, Nantucket boasts over 800 pre-civil war buildings and has been called the “finest example of an early New England seaport.”  The Nantucket Historic District was designated to the National Register of Historic Places in November 1966.

This rooftop view is similar to the views that Nantucketers enjoy from “Widow’s Walks” on their homes.  Actually the term “Widow’s Walk” is more accurately called a roof walk, a platform on the roof to give access to the chimney in order to put out chimney fires.

Follow the compass on the deck. Looking east you will see the channel that rounds Brant Point, the entry point for ferry traffic.  Visitors coming to the island by ferry will enjoy a spectacular view of the town.  A Nantucket tradition says that as you leave the island and pass Brant Point Lighthouse, you should throw two pennies overboard to ensure a return visit!

23 Cataract Fire Engine
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The town experienced a devastating fire in 1846.  Cataract was one of the fire engines that attempted, unsuccessfully, to extinguish the fire.  Cataract is typical of New England fire appliances from the first half of the 19th century.  Drawn to the scene by its company of men and operated entirely by hand, it features a two-cylinder single-acting pump inside a copper-lined wooden tub which was filled with water by bucket brigade or suction hose.  Its long wood pumping handles, stored on either side, were swung into position when needed.  The crane neck at the front permitted the front wheels to be rotated in a wide arc, allowing the engine to turn for easy positioning.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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