Thames River Heritage Park: Whaling and Groton Bank

Groton, CT, United States
Est. 2.5km / 49 mins / Map

Thames River Heritage Park: Whaling and Groton Bank - Cya On The Road

The Massachusetts ports of Nantucket and then New Bedford established whaling as a principal New England maritime industry. While we support the conservation of these huge, intelligent creatures, whales were then seen as a resource whose insulating blubber could be stripped off and rendered into oil for lighting, lubrication, and other purposes. New London reestablished its whaling industry in 1819, and by 1845 it was second only to New Bedford as a whaling port. New London whalers acquired a reputation as “underwater men,” who worked in such extreme locations as the eastern Arctic and the south Indian Ocean. A slow decline brought an end to New London whaling shortly after 1900. As part of the New London customs district, Groton Bank contributed money and men to the business. At least nine whaling captains resided here. Among them were William H. Allen and his brother Charles E. Allen. Like many seafarers, William Allen grew up on a farm. His father was a Ledyard farmer who moved to Lebanon, Connecticut, where William was born in 1826. At age 16, William Allen went to sea as cook on a small fishing vessel. He made his first whaling voyage in the 1840s, and by 1850 he was third mate of the New London whaler Bengal, hunting in the Pacific Ocean. In the ship’s logbook for the voyage, Allen recorded an account of how a whale was harpooned to connect it to the whaleboat, then lanced to kill it, and cut in alongside the ship to remove the blubber, which was rendered into oil in the ship’s trypots. The oil was stowed in barrels. “The man at the masthead sung out for whale which proved to be sperm whale,” Allen wrote. “So, we lowered down our boats and had the good luck to capture two which will make us 70 barrels. The Captain’s boat struck first then got his line cut. Then Mr. Bailey struck and had the good luck to kill him and soon after our labbert boat struck and got one and brought him along side and then we rigged the cutting gear which took us sometime and then we cut one of them in but it was so ruff that we could not cut the other in.”A year after his marriage in 1858, William Allen began the first of two voyages as captain of the New Bedford whaleship Onward. He specialized in whaling in the Sea of Okhotsk off Siberia. His voyage from 1864 to 1867 returned a huge catch to a market with high prices, making it one of the richest ever. Captain Allen’s share was about $40,000, or more than $600,000 in today’s dollars.Retired ashore to a Thames Street house that no longer stands, he served in town and state politics, was a Freemason, and acted as commodore of New London’s Jibboom Club, a social club for mariners and former whalemen. He died in 1907, having lived a life that personified his remark in that 1850 logbook: “The bitter and the sweet are mingled in the experience of those who go down to the sea in ships.”

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