As the Whaler Charles W. Morgan Returns, a Long Lost Lamp Waits to Go Home

Jun 12, 2014

Longtime Marion barber Al Hamer says a man gave him the lamp back in the late 1960s, telling him it was taken from the captain's quarters on the Morgan nearly 30 years earlier.
Credit Photo by Don Cuddy

The Charles W Morgan is currently undergoing sea trials off New London, as America’s only surviving whaler prepares for this month’s cruise to New Bedford and Vineyard Haven. Harbor Master Mike Cormier says it was the buzz generated by the Morgan’s restoration that resulted in the lamp’s rediscovery.

"Here she is," Cormier said. "Pretty impressive, huh? I think it’s made out of tin and if you notice there’s a lion’s head where the oil stem comes out. The top part here was used as a funnel to fill it with whale oil and you notice the round wick is still in place. That’s consistent with what they used in the whale oil days from what I’ve been told.”  

The back of the lamp has been heavily soldered which, Cormier speculates, resulted from being worn away over time as the lamp swung on a beam with the roll of the ship. He says it was pure  coincidence and a casual conversation that led him to the lamp.

“I happened to be talking to Al Hamer at the barbershop and the Morgan came up," he said, "And Al says that he had this in his attic. Al got ahold of it somehow and he wanted to get it back aboard the Morgan so here it is.”

It’s no surprise that an artifact such as this should re-emerge in Marion, a salty town with a rich seafaring tradition. And Al Hamer’s tiny barber shop has kept that tradition alive. The shop is called the Yankee Clipper, and the sign out front depicts a graceful tall ship heeling under a press of sail. Charts of shipwrecks in Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod adorn the walls inside the cozy shop where Al, the quintessential barber, and a born raconteur, holds court.

Marion Harbormaster Mike Cormier holds the tin lamp, thought to have been taken from the whaler back in the 1940s. A casual conversation with the local barber revealed that the lamp had been hidden away in an attic for decades.
Credit By Don Cuddy

“1966/67 this fella hands me a bag, says this is for you," Hamer recalls. "Later, I opened the bag and wondered what it was. When he came back he told me it was the night light from the captain’s cabin on the Morgan. I asked him, pray tell, how he acquired it?”

The details of just how it fell into the local man’s hands may be lost to history. As Hamer remembers it, either that man or one of his kin was aboard the Morgan in 1941, when it was towed  down to Mystic, Conn. from its berth at Round Hill in Dartmouth.  

“So evidently this was a souvenir that came off in somebody’s sea bag," Hamer said.

The lamp hung as a curio from a nail in his shop for a number of years, Hamer said, occasionally attracting queries from his customers. But eventually it ended up in the attic where it has remained, forgotten, for the past thirty years. It was only when the harbor master mentioned that the Morgan was coming back to New Bedford that Hamer suddenly recalled the story of the lamp. He decided it was only fitting that it should be returned to the ship.

“If it does in fact belong there I’m happy to give it back because that’s where it belongs. That’s exactly how I feel about it," he said.”

Frank McNamee of Marion Antiques, examines the lamp. McNamee says the provenance needs to be confirmed with Charles W. Morgan experts, but the lamp appears to be of the correct style and time period to fit Hamer's story.
Credit Photo by Don Cuddy

Hamer has no way of proving that the lamp actually came from the Morgan. The man who brought him the lamp has passed away long since, he says. As best as he can remember, his name was Morton or Norton and he was in the cranberry business.

Half a mile down Route 6 from the Yankee Clipper, Frank McNamee runs Marion Antiques, one of the oldest antique shops operating in New England, and an establishment well versed in appraising any and all things maritime. The Morgan was active from 1841 to 1920, and a quick look at the lamp was sufficient for McNamee to draw some conclusions.

“The size of the reservoir indicates that this was pre-kerosene," he said. "Kerosene became the fluid for lighting in the late 19th century and replaced whale oil. So this is probably for whale oil or something similar and that would tie in with the story that it was from the Morgan.”

The lamp is made from tin. That means it was an inexpensive item intended for everyday use. A working vessel such as a whaler would have no elegant fittings such as might be found in the captain’s quarters on a British man of war, McNamee said,  making it entirely plausible that the lamp might be the real deal. Even if proven, he says the cash value of the lamp would remain relatively modest.

A closeup of the tin lamp.

“This, as a lone object with no connection to the Morgan, would have very minor value in the antique market, possibly $100.  But if you can establish a provenance and connect it to a famous object or ship the increase in value would be tenfold."

Officials at Mystic Seaport were intrigued to learn that an original artifact, possibly from the Morgan, had been discovered at one of the whaler’s upcoming ports of call.  According to Mystic historian Matthew Stackpole, the curatorial staff there will need some time to research the find in an attempt to determine its authenticity.

The Morgan is scheduled to dock at New Bedford’s state pier for ten days on June 28. Tens of thousands of visitors from around the region are expected to visit the ship. Thanks to the public spirit of a barber in Marion, one of those visitors will arrive carrying a small tin lamp seeking a suitable nail in the captain’s quarters.