The Decline of Whaling

Footnotes to Long Island History

The Decline of Whaling

Thomas R. Bayles



The whaling business, which was such an important industry 100 years ago, and operated out of Sag Harbor on Long Island, and from New Bedford, Mass., had declined to such an extent by 1900 that there were only about 40 ships engaged in this trade, according to the "Whalemen's Shipping List" for that year. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for December 15, 1902 carried an article about whaling and the whole ships of the years gone by, and the following extracts are quoted from it:

 "The wharves in Sag Harbor and New Bedford are now practically deserted and the forests of masts, which only a few years ago rose from the hulks of old time whalers, has now disappeared as these old hulks have been broken up, being past service. Those wharves which were covered with barrels of whale oil are now empty and rotting. Once a whaler was a common sight and excited no comment, but only a few months ago the sailing of the whaling bark 'Sunbeam' was the occasion of much talk.

 "There was always a halo of romance about the chase of the whale and its capture, the long voyages that had in them the element of danger, and the brave and hardy men who sailed the ships. The smell of brine and the curious houses, where watch was kept for roof top balconies built on many incoming ships, are about all that remains to remind one that its glory began to grow dim when kerosene oil commenced to lighten the rest of the world.

 "And here lies the prime cause for the decline of the whaling of the whaling business; the gradual decrease of demand for whale oil as other oils came into more general use, and also as whales became more scarce. There is still a reasonable demand for the oil of the sperm whale at about 75 cents a gallon, as against $2.50 a gallon, in the old days, but the whales are so scarce that the risks of obtaining a full catch are too great to be lightly undertaken. The whalers killed "the goose that laid the golden egg" when they pursued the whale with 800 ships until he retreated for safety beyond the reach of their harpoons. Whales are beginning to appear again in the North Atlantic but this does not argue a resumpting of whaling activity to any extent.

 "It is a reminder of the old days to learn that the bark "Canton" has recently put into her home port of New Bedford after a 16-month voyage which yielded 2,200 barrels of sperm oil. But, like the decline of the rest of the American Merchant Marine, extinction was hastened by the Civil war. Our merchant ships were laboring against the introduction of iron ships propelled by steam and the restrictive navigation laws. The whaling industry escaped these conditions, for steam was not so necessary in a whaler, and wood was far better for construction than iron. In 1852 there were over 800 ships engaged in this trade with a total of 194,000 tons, and by 1862 the tonnage had declined to 118,000 tons.

 "During the war in one cruise up the Bering Sea the Confederate ship 'Shenandoah' burned 30 first class whaleships and sent their penniless crews down to San Francisco. Many a homeward bound whaler, with her crew in blissful ignorance that war had been declared was called upon to stand and surrender by the 'Alabama.' In a few moments the unfortunate crews watched their four years takings disappear in smoke. Ten years later, in 1872, there were in existence only 217 United States whaleships with a total tonnage of 51,608 tons, and each successive year saw the continued decline in both ships and tonnage. There are now (1902) only 40 ships of 9,320 tons registered, and most of these are from New Bedford.

 "Some of the whaleships enjoy a long lease of active service, and one just about to be broken up on the Pacific Coast has been over 70 years in the trade. The bark 'Sunbeam' recently departed on a new voyage, sound in every way, although she was launched in 1856.

 "Even now the extinction of whaling as an industry appears to be merely a matter of a few years, but it will leave behind a glorious record of fortunes made, and daring deeds on the seas."

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