March is a month of impatient longing. Winter is melting away and daydreams of outdoor adventures lead us to our windows. From my house, the outside view includes the Hudson River, so that scene and my love of history lead me to think about all the scenes in Newburgh’s past.
Of all the adventurous eras along the Hudson, one of the wildest was the early 19th century whaling days. Imagine tall-masted whaling ships coming back to our harbor carrying our local sailors who had stopped at ports along the coasts of South America, Africa and the South Pacific. Imagine wives and sweethearts and families gathered at our shore waving goodbye to a whale ship or welcoming it home after a voyage that may have lasted as long as two years. The stories that Newburgh once sent whaling ships out around the world from Water Street wharves is true. The years were 1832 – 1837.
Nine Newburgh men, seeing the successful whaling fleet working out of Hudson, NY up the river, incorporated as The Newburgh Whaling Company. Whalers from Hudson had been sailing past Newburgh for two years teasing local businessmen with the lure of their profits. Newburgh felt it also had the attributes of a deep water harbor, local banks for investment and a busy network of docks, wharves and warehouses and could succeed as a whaling community too. Whale oil in that era was highly prized for the cleaner, brighter light it made when burned in lamps or as candles. Whale bone (actually the plates of balleen from right whales) was prized for its use stiffening collars and corsets for the increasingly high-style fashions worn by men and women of that romantic era. One Newburgh entrepreneur made a business out of creating buggy whips from whale bone.
The Newburgh Whaling Company’s first ship that set out in the Spring of 1832 was the Portland. Next they bought the ship Russell and finally the ship Illinois. The cost of these three ships was over $42,000, a massive investment in 1832 dollars. The company also built a large storehouse and wharf at the foot of First Street. Although the returning cargo of sperm oil from a long voyage could be nearly 2500 barrels and stacks of whalebone could weigh as much as 30,000 pounds, bringing investors a return of $25,000 or more per voyage, it was a risky business. Storms could chase away the expected pods of whales or, worse yet, shipwreck an entire year’s investment and labor. There were, indeed, pirates to contend with in foreign waters and crews were known to mutiny after long discouraging months away from home. The crew of a whaler out of Poughkeepsie stabbed its captain and left him to die on the Galapagos Islands. The work a whale ship did maneuvering in high seas and then rendering the giant whales onboard was extremely rough on the ship. Even the best-made craft lasted no more than 5 voyages and had to be scrapped and rebuilt. Since whaling companies along the Hudson River were formed for investment not employment, these hardships coupled with national financial recessions and the discovery of the way to manufacture coal oil for lamps inevitably ended the Newburgh Whaling Company and others. The Panic of 1837 was enough to make the Newburgh investors vote to sell off their assets. Whale oil, like many commodities, lost half its value in less than six months during 1837. Poughkeepsie and Hudson hung on to their whale fleets for a couple more years, then their companies also folded. Daniel Farrington, who had been one of the Newburgh company’s directors kept the books of the old Whaling Company at his store on Water Street. A fire at Farrington’s in 1846 burned up these ledgers so no history of the company remains beyond its act of incorporation filed with New York State and a few old newspaper stories of the arrival and departure of the three ships of the little fleet.
Newburgh continued to be a busy shipping port on through the 19th century and the old warehouse and wharf of the whaling company transitioned to use for other commodities. Schooners brought goods from world ports and Orange County products were shipped in trade. A few sailors who once left on the decks of the whalers, having a taste for exotic ports of call, hired on for voyages to as far away as China. Like whaling, their trips could be fun as well as treacherous. The most frightening account was of the schooner Colonel Crockett, captained by George Austin who had commanded the Illinois. On a voyage up African rivers to trade for ivory and ebony, the Crockett crew died from a series of disasters: fever, shipwreck, murder and even cannibals. Only three survived the two-year ordeal described in Carl Carmer’s classic 1939 history, The Hudson. Many familiar Newburgh men of all ages and races left our village on that voyage of the Colonel Crockett in June 1839. In March 1841, only young David Baker, who had been a cabin boy, walked back up our steep streets to his home. Sailing the seven seas was losing its charm for Hudson River men and many turned to building the ships that others would sail.