A ship’s ‘manna from heaven’

Lucky find in Charlestown saves whaler’s restoration

Restoration of Mystic Seaport’s Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American wooden whaling ship, involves oak unearthed during an excavation in Charlestown. Restoration of Mystic Seaport’s Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American wooden whaling ship, involves oak unearthed during an excavation in Charlestown. (Steve Haines for The Boston Globe)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 9, 2011

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MYSTIC, Conn. — For the antiquarian shipbuilders who are painstakingly restoring the world’s only surviving wooden whale ship here, an essential ingredient can be very hard to find: lumber that’s big enough and strong enough for a massive 19th- century seafaring vessel, and cheap enough for a restoration project’s budget.

Restorers of the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport had relied on fallen live and white oak trees from the Deep South, where hurricanes like Hugo and Katrina had uprooted many. But supplies were running low last June and officials wondered where they would find more. Then construction crews working in Charlestown made an accidental and historic discovery.

Buried in the briny mud at the Charlestown Navy Yard was a cache of pristine antique oak, hand-hewn specifically for use in ships of the great tall-ship era.

“Manna from heaven,’’ Quentin Snediker, who directs Mystic’s preservation shipyard, said last month while inside the Morgan’s hold, where the Charlestown oak has been laid alongside fallen brothers from the Gulf Coast and the 1841 ship’s original beams. “It was chosen and cut by masters of the trade, ideal for its application.’’

Found in what had once been a timber basin for the Navy Yard, the underground supply had been preserved by the mud for nearly a century and has supplied some 140 pieces to the $10 million Morgan project, which hopes to relaunch the ship in the summer of 2013.

Crews working on a new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital facility discovered the supply of live oak and white oak, and quickly recognized its value. David Burson, senior project manager at Partners HealthCare who is overseeing the Spaulding project, said crews had no knowledge of the timber until they saw pieces sticking up through the mud.

The wood bore numbers, he said, suggesting it was part of an inventory.

“We think they were stockpiling it’’ to use to repair damaged ships, he said. “It was in incredible condition.’’

An excavating engineer on the project who was familiar with ship restoration called Snediker, who could scarcely believe a trove of the finest ship timber had emerged from the distant past, seemingly waiting for the moment it was needed most.

“The chances of this were almost too much to accept,’’ Snediker said. “It’s staggering. Each piece by itself is a historical artifact.’’

The area where the wood was discovered was built over around 1913.

The hospital was happy to donate the wood for such a worthy cause, and kept a bit for itself to commemorate the site’s history, perhaps with a bench or boardroom table.

The white oak salvaged from Charlestown dated to the 1860s and came from Ohio, specialists at the University of Arizona have determined. The live oak, while difficult to date, probably comes from the same era, when it was treasured by shipbuilders for its gentle curves and extreme durability.

“You can’t fabricate that kind of strength,’’ said Matthew Stackpole, a member of the Morgan restoration team. “It’s grown into the wood.’’

The day after learning about the discovered timber basin, Snediker came to Boston to see it for himself, and was amazed by its quantity and quality. In his mind, he was already fitting the pieces into the Morgan’s frame.

“It’s quite remarkable,’’ he said as he admired a massive, gracefully curved piece.

Except for a small amount of bronze and wrought iron, the Morgan is made of wood, down to the black locust trunnels. Workers even use traditional tools when they install timbers to maintain the authentic look.

Those working on the restoration share a reverence for the craftsmanship and ingenuity of those “who went before,’’ Snediker said. “It’s a deep, almost spiritual respect for the continuity they are a part of.’’

As far back as Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Snediker developed a network of people across the South, from plantation owners to highway officials, to notify him of downed trees. For those saddened by the loss of the beautiful trees, donating them to a historical project provides a measure of “emotional compensation,’’ he said.

Built in New Bedford, the Morgan has been docked at Mystic Seaport since 1941, and has been the centerpiece of the museum ever since.

After years of planning, restoration efforts began in earnest in 2008.

Stackpole calls the Morgan a “lucky ship’’ that survived fierce hurricanes, attacks by Confederate raiders and Pacific natives, and many near-wrecks during its 37 voyages that took her to 59 ports around the world.

After the Morgan was retired, it became a public museum at an estate near New Bedford until the mid 1930s, when its benefactor died.

It was towed to Mystic in 1941, 29 days before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

When the restoration is complete, organizers plan to maintain the Morgan as a museum to pay tribute to the country’s seafaring and whaling history. In light of the Charlestown find, they hope it will eventually visit Boston and take a place near “Old Ironsides.’’

The wood is “a gift from the past to the present,’’ Stackpole said. “It’s history helping history.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at