Back Story: Baltimorean was historic whaling vessel's last 'stowaway'

He climbed aboard the Charles W. Morgan in 1941

  • The Liberty Ship Charles Morgan was sunk off Utah Beach in June 1944.
The Liberty Ship Charles Morgan was sunk off Utah Beach in June… ( U.S. Navy Photo )
August 01, 2013|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

While researching a column about the venerable 172-year-old whaling vessel Charles W. Morgan that was recently relaunched at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut after a restoration, I came upon a 1979 article in a yellowing Baltimore Sun library clip written by Jim Holechek, a retired Baltimore public relations executive and author.

Jim, who wrote the "Boating" column in The Sunday Sun for years, told the tale of Joseph Gordon, who later was director of health information for the city Health Department and earned a footnote in maritime history as the Morgan's last stowaway.

He clambered aboard as the ship was being towed from New London, Conn., to its new home at Mystic Seaport, where it has rested since 1941.

On a chill November day in 1941, Gordon had been invited by Capt. Ewell Thomas of Stonington, Conn., to cruise into Fishers Island Sound aboard the Bear, his cabin cruiser, to await the arrival of the 133-foot Morgan, the nation's sole surviving 19th-century whaler.

The two men had just put Stonington astern when the Morgan appeared in the early-morning haze, looking like a traveler from another time. Gordon was ready. He had two cameras around his neck to record its historic passing.

"She looked imposing even under bare spars," Gordon told Holechek. "It reminded me of the Flying Dutchman. There was no visible sign of propulsion as she moved toward us."

The men could see several people standing on its deck.

"She was bigger than I imagined," said Gordon. "The tiny tug Nelseco out of New London had her nose buried against the Morgan's port quarter."

Gordon persuaded Thomas, whom he described as a "cautious skipper," to move close to the Morgan. He looked for the handholds on the vessel's hull and scrambled up its side.

He climbed over the rail onto the Morgan's deck. No one on the Morgan's crew knew he was aboard.

Gordon, aware of his intruder status, recognized a river pilot and another captain who were overseeing the Morgan's brief voyage.

"Uncertain about how my presence on the Morgan would be treated, I sought out the Morgan's last master afloat, Capt. William Henry Tripp, who was onboard.

"He dramatized the occasion by calling me the Morgan's last stowaway, and it made me feel for that moment that I was tied to the history of the Morgan as closely as the crew which sailed from New Bedford in 1841," he told Holechek.

Gordon was involved in a sequel three years later. As a young Navy lieutenant during the D-Day landing at Normandy, he was aboard the Liberty ship Thomas Jefferson when he saw another Liberty ship anchored close by, down by the stern.

"Her name — Charles Morgan. In a flash my mind went back to the other Morgan, the Charles W. Morgan and her charmed life of over a hundred years, and I thought, 'Too bad! This Morgan ran out of luck,' " Gordon said in a 1980 interview with The Sunday Sun.

On June 10, 1944, the Morgan was attacked by German bombers and sunk but was later salvaged.

The Liberty ship Morgan, which was built in 1943 by Todd Shipbuilding Corp., was named for Charles Morgan, a New York shipping and railroad magnate.

Morgan was the founder and owner of the Morgan Line that sailed from New York to New Orleans and Texas ports from 1833 to 1885.

"For me, Charles W. Morgan or Charles Morgan will always be a magic name. I think often of these two ships, each of which made unique contributions to America's history," said Gordon, who died a month after giving his interview.

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