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Whaling Museum

From left, Museum Executive Director Nomi Dayan, Museum Board President Patricia Aitken, Receiver of Taxes Jillian Guthman, Councilwoman Joan Cergol, Town Historian Robert Hughes, Supervisor Chad Lupinacci and John Newkirk from The WG Pomeroy Foundation. Photo from Whaling Museum


In a time when most towns are losing their historic significance as older buildings get torn down for newer, modern designs, the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling museum received recognition from the Pomeroy Foundation for their 1894 offices, on May 11. 

The reception saw townspeople, board members, and museumgoers, as well as many of Huntington’s town leaders, and representatives from Senator Gillibrand’s office come out for the unveiling. Following speeches, Joan Lowenthal, one of the museum’s interpreters, led the crowd on a walking tour through Cold Spring Harbor Village, highlighting the many historic structures along the way.

“It’s amazing coming to work every day in such a special piece of history, while we work on history programming,” explains Assistant Director Cindy Grimm. “It really makes you appreciate how fortunate we are to have these structures standing today; in fact most of Cold Spring Harbor is the same as it was in the 1850 whaling boom.” 

The Captain James Wright house was built in 1894 for the coastwise captain, who also fought in the civil war and was a Huntington town constable. When he died at home after a short illness in 1923, his daughter, Eva (who was the operator of the first telegraph in Cold Spring and later a librarian at the Cold Spring Harbor Library), remained in the home until she sold it to the Whaling Museum in 1956. It was partially rented out until the 1980s, when the museum moved its offices to the building.

For more information, call 631-367-3418.

Author Nomi Dayan (holding book) with community members after the event. Photo by Heidi Sutton

By Heidi Sutton

The Friends of the Huntington Public Library hosted a book signing with author Nomi Dayan last Thursday evening. Dayan, who is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor, gave an informative and evocative pictorial presentation exploring the rise and fall of whaling on Long Island before signing copies of her new book, “Whaling on Long Island” (Arcadia Press). Artifacts from the museum’s collection, including a whale ear bone and scrimshaw items crafted by whalers at sea, were passed around during the event. The book is available for purchase at The Whaling Museum’s gift shop.

Check out next week’s issue of Arts & Lifestyles in Times Beacon Record Newspapers for a book review of “Whaling on Long Island.”

Live performance recounts whale ship tragedy

Actors will perform inside an authentic whaleboat that was built in Setauket. Photo from The Whaling Museum

By Ed Blair

Actors will perform inside an authentic whaleboat that was built in Setauket. Photo from The Whaling Museum
Actors will perform inside an authentic whaleboat that was built in Setauket. Photo from The Whaling Museum

On August 12, 1819, the Essex, a small but sturdy whaling ship piloted by 29-year-old Captain George Pollard, slipped her moorings and, with a following wind, sailed purposefully from the busy harbor of Nantucket, Massachusetts. Bound for Cape Horn and then on to the warm waters of  the Pacific, Essex had a record of several financially successful voyages, and her crew of 20 hoped that their expected two-and-a-half-year expedition would be a profitable one. The whaling was indeed good, and, by November of 1820, Essex, now deep in the expansive South Pacific, was well on its way to completing yet another rewarding voyage. And then the unthinkable happened.

While Captain Pollard and his harpooners were on the hunt in their whaleboats, 23-year-old First Mate Owen Chase, aboard the ship, spotted in the distance a huge sperm whale — 85 feet by his reckoning — facing head-on toward the vessel. After spouting a few times, the leviathan inexplicably charged straight for Essex, smashing into her with what Chase later described as “an appalling and tremendous jar.” Not satisfied, the menacing giant, “as if distracted with rage and fury,” struck again, with devastating results. Essex went down, leaving her horror-struck crew to fend for themselves more than a thousand miles from the nearest land.

If the story strikes a familiar note, it is because the tales told by the Essex survivors were incorporated by author Herman Melville in penning his 1851 classic, “Moby-Dick.” Where Melville’s novel ended, however, the harrowing tale of Essex’s forsaken crew had only begun.

It is their incredible story, chronicled by Nathaniel Philbrick in his best seller “In the Heart of the Sea” (and also by Ron Howard in his newly released film by the same title), that The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor is currently offering to share with visitors to the museum on Main Street in Cold Spring Harbor.

On Sunday, Dec. 27, and again on Saturday, Jan. 9, the museum will present college student actors who will perform, in full whaler garb, select scenes from the Philbrick book. Staged “in the round” inside an authentic whaleboat, the performance will offer a unique opportunity to gain insight into Long Island’s rich whaling history. The 30-foot whaleboat, built in an 1800s shipyard in Setauket, is fully equipped with its original gear according to Nomi Dayan, the museum’s executive director.

“While the Ron Howard movie may focus more on the whale’s attack, we differ in that we concentrate on how men pushed to their absolute limits were able to prevail,” she explained. Characterizing the local actors’ performance as “extremely professional,” Dayan added, “Our hope is that the interest aroused by the film stimulates an interest in an important part of Long Island’s past.”

The three-month odyssey of the crew members following the wreck of the Essex was one of torment and privation. At the mercy of the elements, they endured storms and starvation, and their desperation to survive eventually drove them to cannibalism. Eight men lived to tell the tale, Captain Pollard and First Mate Chase among them, and it was their rendering of the story that inspired Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor is located at 279 Main Street. Both performances of the selected readings will start at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a question-and-answer session and include a wine and cheese reception as well as exhibit viewing. Seating is limited to 40 guests for each performance. Tickets, which are $20 per person and $35 per couple, can be reserved online at www.cshwhalingmuseum.org or by calling 631-367-3418.

The entrance to the new exhibit in Cold Spring Harbor, If I Were a Whaler. Photo by Judy Palumbo

By Rita J. Egan

The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor introduced its new interactive, hands-on exhibit, If I Were a Whaler, on Sunday, Sept. 27. The exhibit launched off with the opening day event SeaFaire featuring craft-makers, including a woodworker, quilter and spinner, demonstrating their old world skills. The day also gave visitors the opportunity to create historical maritime crafts such as ship models and scrimshaw carvings.

Judy Palumbo, community relations and development manager at the museum, said the committee designed the exhibit to give guests a strong sense of what life was like on a whaling boat for the whalers. She said exhibit goers will discover how simply the seamen lived and how minimal their supplies were. According to Palumbo, some would have only a tiny trunk for a three-year voyage, and on the boat, they would sleep in tight quarters that also doubled as a place to eat since there were no dining halls.

“We’re just trying to give people a picture of what life on the ship was like … a whaler’s life,” Palumbo said.

Items ‘for sale’ in the Jones General Store at the If I Were a Whaler exhibit. Photo by Judy Palumbo
Items ‘for sale’ in the Jones General Store at the If I Were a Whaler exhibit. Photo by Judy Palumbo

The community relations and development manager said the exhibit is extremely interactive and exhibit goers can experience each stage of a whaler’s journey. One interactive station is a general store where children are given coins to purchase items, and while deciding what to buy for their voyage, learn how limited the seamen’s budgets were.

Executive Director Nomi Dayan said the store is based on Jones General Store, which once operated in Cold Spring Harbor. She said children can decide things such as if they are going to get an extra warm pair of pants or two shirts.

“They really have to think critically about what it took to endure life at sea,” Dayan said.

At the second station, visitors will discover what life was like under the decks for the whalers. Children can try out a berth and view the limited food options the whalers had at sea.

“I think one of the most fun things about it is the bunk bed where you can climb in and realize how little personal space you had,” Dayan said.

Another interactive station will show visitors what it was like to raise the sails or swab the deck, which was also referred to as holystoning, where they actually cleaned the decks with stones, according to Palumbo. The community relations and development manager said the station demonstrates the whalers’ responsibilities during their voyages.

Children can learn how to plan a voyage as well at the navigation stage and, based on their choices, find out their fate. Destinies include being shipwrecked or catching a whale among other outcomes.

Exhibit goers will discover how the whalers spent their free time, too. Palumbo explained that catching whales only used a small percentage of the whalers’ time spent at sea since the mammals weren’t that easy to catch. Maps are also on display showing the seamen’s journeys that included expeditions to the Arctic, South America and the Hawaiian Islands.

Complementing the interactive stations will be nautical tools and artifacts on display from the museum’s collection, which totals 6,000 pieces. Palumbo said the museum owns one of the largest scrimshaw collections in the Northeast and one of the last fully equipped whaling boats.

Palumbo said construction of If I Were a Whaler began Labor Day weekend; however, the museum’s educators Cyndi Grimm, Liz Fusco, Gina Van Bell, Amanda Vengroff, as well as Dayan and carpenter Peter Schwind have been working on the exhibit for months.

Dayan said the plan right now is to display If I Were a Whaler for two years. She said she believes the interactive exhibit, which was inspired by the USS Constitution Museum in Boston’s A Sailor’s Life for Me: War of 1812 curriculum, will provide children an understanding of maritime history that they may not get from a textbook or by just looking at an artifact in a museum.

“We hope families will gain a much better appreciation and understanding of local history, and we hope that will happen through making history come to life,” Dayan said.

The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor is located at 301 Main Street, Cold Spring Harbor. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for children. For more information, visit www.cshwhalingmuseum.org or call 631-367-3418.