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Portsmouth Goes Whaling


If the city cannot preserve its massive humpback whale mural, it won’t be the first time Portsmouth has failed at whaling. In the 1990s enviro-artist Robert Wyland urged us to save endangered species with his “Whaling Wall,” now itself endangered. But in the 1830s and 40s Portsmouth entrepreneurs set out to kill every whale in sight. Their attempt to turn New Hampshire’s only seaport into the next Nantucket or New Bedford met with limited initial success, then sank like an anchor. (Continued below)  


If not for the discovery of a Portsmouth whaling journal a decade ago, and a book by maritime writer Kenneth Martin, these whale tales might have been forgotten. Martin’s 1998 book Heavy Weather and Hard Luck surprised most local historians who blinked and missed this bloody and intriguing chapter in the city’s maritime history.  

Times were tough in Portsmouth in the early 1800s. Despite lucrative bouts of privateering, the city’s sea trading industry largely collapsed after the War of 1812, never to revive. The economy just would not catch fire, but the buildings did. After the downtown burned three times, many of its young people moved away in search of brighter careers.  

Whale Oil Ad in Portsmouth, NH newspaper

Portsmouth takes a risk  

So when some clever fellow suggested turning Portsmouth into a whaling community, it sounded like a good idea. Local craftsmen had certainly built some fine whaling ships for the burgeoning industry in nearby New Bedford, Salem, and Nantucket, Massachusetts. Whale oil, cooked from the blubber of giant sea mammals, was the ultimate modern fuel. Whale oil for lamps was selling at 23 cents per gallon (about $5 today) and a whaling ship could return with thousands of gallons. Sperm oil, used as an industrial lubricant, brought in nearly four times the price. Long before concern of endangered species, whales could be harpooned and killed, and were still plentiful. All one had to do was find them. If other ports had hundreds of whaling ships, why couldn't Portsmouth have a few?  

So the Portsmouth Whaling Company was formed in June 1832 at the Bell Tavern on Congress Street. Corporations, a popular new business idea, had succeeded in Portsmouth before. By sharing costs, a group of investors could create a business, split up the risk, and divide the profits. This “venturesome attitude” had already led to the funding of local banks, a public bath, the Portsmouth Aqueduct Company, steamboats, even roads and bridges. Portsmouth Whaling Company investors included Ichabod Goodwin, a future New Hampshire governor, and politician Thomas Laighton, who also managed the NH Gazette newspaper. Laighton went on to build a tourist hotel on the rocky Isles of Shoals where his daughter, Celia Thaxter, gained national fame as a writer.  

Wylands_Whaling_Wall by J. Dennis Robinson in Winter 1998

In 1832 the company still had no ship, crew, expertise or provisions. There was, however, investment money and, soon the group owned the 98-foot 300-ton whaler Pocahontas. Supplies not normally found in Portsmouth had to be custom made. Experienced crewmen were needed for difficult voyages that could last years. Specialized whaling gear, unknown in Portsmouth, had to be purchased elsewhere or crafted locally at great expense. Start-up costs, therefore, were high.  

Other entrepreneurs, smelling money, took the plunge. Charles Cushing of South Berwick quickly outfitted the ship Triton, and later the Plato for his own whaling venture. Another group under the Ladd brothers (of Moffatt-Ladd House fame) also decided to cash in on the imagined whaling boom. As an outgrowth of their Portsmouth Pier Company on Daniel Street, the two joined forces with investors who paid $500 each (in 1830s-era dollars) for 40 shares of stock in the ship Ann Parry. To corner the local market, the Ladds also built a whale oil refinery on Market Street, the only one of its kind in this region.


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Saturday, January 20, 2018 
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