Last summer, the New Bedford whaleship Charles W. Morgan sailed around New England after an extensive restoration. The Morgan gained fame as the last remaining whaler in the world. But what of the other vessels that once were part of the large New Bedford whaling fleet? The story of New Bedford’s Stone Fleet is told by two park rangers from the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park - Judy Roderiques and Lucy Bly, also known as the “1850’s ladies,” Abby and Ruth.
Judy Roderiques plays the character Abby. She speaks about the whaleships of the era.
Abby: “There were a lot of ships that never returned. We don’t know where they are. They’re at the bottom of the ocean somewhere.”
Lucy Bly plays Ruth.
Ruth: “Whaleships are very vulnerable. They’re like a great big fat duck sittin’ on the water.”
Together, Abby and Ruth are the “1850s Ladies.”
Abby: “Full of oil and able to burn easily.”
Ruth: ”You don’t need to do much except drop a match, and that could very well take care of them.”
Bly and Roderiques created the two characters six years ago based on two women who lived in New Bedford during the mid-19th century. The 1850’s ladies both tell of early optimism about the Civil War during 1861.
Ruth: “The North was rather sure that they could quickly take care of the southern states,”
Abby: “Oh yes, we didn’t think it was going to last long. The war?”
Ruth: “It wasn’t going to last forever.”
By this time, commercial oil wells had been developed. Many of the New Bedford ships that once sailed around the world in search of whale oil now sat idle at the docks. So the US Navy offered to buy some of them. They would use them to block Southern ports like Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina.
“And there’s a great deal of contraband going in and out of southern ports,” said Ruth. “The big thing was to, somehow or other, slow down any supplies that would be coming in.”
The Navy bought 24 New Bedford whaleships in all for $4,000 apiece - the Francis Henrietta, the Herald, the Leonidas and others. Workers filled them with heavy stone and sent them off to be sunk in the harbors, where they would create eddies, whirlpools and treacherous currents to stop the flow of contraband. They called the ships the Stone Fleet. And Abby and Ruth went to see it off.
Abby: “We were waving our handkerchiefs and all, and they shot the cannon off, and off the ships went. Oh, it was quite an amazing thing to see. What a sight.”
Ruth: “It really was.”
Abby: “It was amazing.”
Ruth: “I don’t think they knew where they were going.”
Abby: “They didn’t know where they were going until they were out to sea.”
The ships left New Bedford in November – seven sailing to Savannah, and 17 to Charleston. It was a 1,000-mile sail and fraught with risk. But they made it. The Stone Fleet became sunken hulks in the key southern ports. The problem was, by the Spring of 1862, it was clear that the plan wasn’t working.
“What had happened is that the bottom of Charleston Harbor is so muddy, everything just sort of sunk. So it just continued to sink and shift, and actually, it turned out that it made the harbor deeper in the long run, because it just kept funneling things away,” said Abby.
It was a daring and honorable final mission for the New Bedford whalers known as the Stone Fleet. And 150 years later, the shipwrecks are still serving, creating a unique undersea ecosystem in the harbors for fish and marine life.
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