The Howlands, Joseph Anthony, and their cousins and friends were fortunate sons of New Bedford society. Other young men their age, of considerably lowlier station, flocked to the town in the 1840s and 1850s, looking for a berth aboard a whaleship. The fine captains’ houses lining the streets above the harbor were proof of the rewards and social improvement a young man with grit and luck might hope for.
Rowland Rogers, of Mattapoisett, was one of these young men. He sailed aboard a whaleship for three years, working for a 147th lay, which netted him, at the end of the voyage, $95.20, or a little under $32 per year. He decided whaling wasn’t the life for him, but saw an opportunity ashore in catering to the growing number of whalemen and sailors setting up homes in the area. He moved his family to Fairhaven and opened a grocery store.
His son, Henry Huttleston Rogers, worked in the store after school, delivering newspapers and groceries by wagon, but the boy had an outsize measure of his father’s ambition for business. Whether because of his father’s unfruitful experience or the stench of whale oil that permeated Fairhaven, and New Bedford across the river, Henry wasn’t interested in whaling. He was drawn to more modern ventures. When he left school in 1856, a tall, handsome, sixteen-year-old, he went to work as a brakeman on the new Fairhaven Branch Railroad. By the age of twenty-one he had saved about $300. He pooled his savings with those of a friend, Charles P. Ellis. With $600 between them, they managed to borrow another $600 and set out for Pennsylvania with the idea of getting into the exciting new “rock oil” business.
Two years earlier, in August 1859, petroleum oil had been extracted from the ground in Pennsylvania, the result of efforts led by a visionary entrepreneur, George Bissell. After graduating from Dartmouth College, Bissell spent ten years teaching and working as a journalist in the South before moving north again. While visiting his alma mater, he was shown a bottle of distilled rock oil, drawn from oil springs on a farm in Pennsylvania, and used as a patent medicine for cholera morbus, liver ailments, bronchitis, consumption—classic “snake oil,” the variously packaged folk remedy for any number of complaints and agues. Such oil, in its crude form, had long been known in northwestern Pennsylvania, noted by trappers and explorers along the Allegheny River, and by the Indians of the area, who believed it had curative powers. The Dartmouth laboratory professor holding the bottle told Bissell that the stuff was flammable. Then, or sometime soon afterward, Bissell—an exhausted, dispirited academic—experienced the first of his two eureka moments that have become part of the recorded history of the petroleum industry: he decided rock oil might have commercial possibilities as an illuminating oil. Other oils had appeared to rival whale oil and smoky tallow candles: camphene, which was unstable and often blew up, and kerosene, or “coal oil,” made from coal, were used in lamps that had been specially developed for them, but none of these had been produced in cheap abundance.
Bissell quickly formed the Pennsylvania Rock-Oil Company and leased the farmland where the oil he’d been shown had come from. He sent a sample of this oil to Benjamin Silliman, Jr., a distinguished professor of chemistry at Yale, to be analyzed for its potential properties. Silliman reported that the oil could easily and inexpensively be made into a high-quality illuminant. “Gentlemen,” he wrote Bissell and his partners, “. . . your Company have in their possession a raw material from which, by simple and not expensive processes, they may manufacture very valuable products.”
Encouraged, Bissell now turned to the process of obtaining the oil in quantities. So far, the only methods of collecting it had been skimming the surfaces of oily creeks and wringing the water out of oil-soaked rags. This had adequately provided the quantities demanded by the patent-medicine market, with its small glass bottles, but Bissell’s dreams called for much more. His second recorded flash of illumination occurred as he stopped one day in the shade beneath a drugstore awning on Broadway, in Manhattan, looked into the window, and saw a bottle of Kier’s rock oil, or petroleum, “celebrated for its wonderful curative powers. A natural Remedy; Produced from a well in Allegheny Co., Pa., four hundred feet below the earth’s surface.”The bottle’s label showed a picture of a well-drilling derrick.
He would drill into the earth to obtain oil in commercial quantities, Bissell decided.
Bissell’s investors, with varying degrees of faith, came and went. He eventually launched a new company, Seneca Oil, and looked for someone who would travel to the leased farmland in Pennsylvania and set up a drilling operation. One of Seneca’s investors, a banker named James Townsend, was living in the Tontine Hotel in New Haven, where he began talking with a colorful thirty-eight-year-old out-of-work railroad conductor named Edwin L. Drake. Townsend hired Drake for the job and sent him south to Pennsylvania with bank drafts and letters of introduction describing the bearer as “Colonel E. L. Drake.” Drake held no such military rank, but the title lent him a stature that was to help launch his wild scheme in the backwoods valleys along the Allegheny.
On the company’s leased farmland beside Oil Creek, two miles from the run-down lumber town of Titusville, Drake spent more than a year setting up a steam engine that would drive a drilling rig. He hired a driller, William (“Uncle Billy”) Smith, and Smith’s two sons, who had worked on artesian salt-drilling rigs. As time passed with no results, most of Seneca’s investors bailed, leaving Townsend to pay the mounting bills out of his own pocket. Eventually even he despaired and wrote to Drake to close up the operation. Drake had not yet received that letter when he arrived at the well on August 29, 1859, and found Uncle Billy and his boys filling pots, barrels, and washtubs with dark, viscous oil that was rising from their borehole, which by then reached sixty-nine feet into the ground. Drake attached a common water pump to the hole and began pumping up oil.
Bissell’s intuition about the possibilities of petroleum oil was not original. He is the man history has remembered for his role in getting Edwin Drake to Pennsylvania, but many were already well aware of the potentials of rock oil. Within days of Drake’s “discovery,” speculators poured into Titusville and the surrounding area, buying up farmland at prices that doubled and tripled overnight. Bissell, too, arrived and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, buying and leasing more farmland. The swampy land up and down Oil Creek turned into a vast tract of mud with the sudden traffic of people, lumber, and wagons. Derricks were erected, wells were drilled in every creek off the Allegheny, and oil obligingly flowed: two, three, four thousand barrels a day, right away, and more bubbling up.
There was the immediate problem of what to do with it. There were not enough whiskey barrels, molasses barrels, casks, or milk cans in Pennsylvania—or, soon, in America—in which to store it all. Reservoirs were dug in the muddy earth, lined with logs and planks, wooden tanks built, though all these soon proved inadequate. Barrels—as suited to petroleum as whale oil—when they could be provided and filled, had to be transported to the nearest rail depots in Erie and Union City. “Teamsters equipped for this service seemed to fall from the sky,” wrote Ida Tarbell in her groundbreaking History of the Standard Oil Company. Boys and men from surrounding farms dropped their tools and plows and headed to the nearest oil derrick with their horses and wagons. They were paid three and four dollars a barrel for hauling wagonloads of oil five or ten miles. But it was hard work: the roads, such as they were, deteriorated immediately to muddy canals across fields and through forests. Caravans of a hundred and more wagon teams were held up by broken wheels and deep mud holes and fallen and dying horses.
Roughly built flatboats were loaded with oil barrels and sent down Oil Creek—“a more uncertain stream never ran in a bed”—colliding with others, running aground, their wreckage piling up on the banks, the oil running freely down to the Allegheny and the Ohio.
The teamsters were eventually put out of business by pipelines. Almost from the beginning, pipes were laid, aided by gravity and pumps, but there were many early problems: they proved too weak, they burst or clogged; collection centers moved, leaving pipes heading nowhere. “Then suddenly the man for the need appeared, Samuel Van Syckel,” Tarbell recounted. Van Syckel had seen much of his own and others’ profits eaten up by the teamsters. He laid a two-inch pipe, with three relays, that carried eighty barrels of oil an hour from the wells to the railroad. “The day that the Van Syckel pipe-line began to run oil a revolution began in the business,” Tarbell observed. “After the Drake well it is the most important event in the history of the Oil Regions.”
The teamsters clearly saw the threat to their livelihood and dug up parts of Van Syckel’s buried pipe, until armed guards were stationed along its length. They burned storage tanks, threatened well-drillers and owners whose oil was carried by pipe. But the pipeline had arrived, as surely as the oil, and the teamsters were finished—though the cutting and destruction of pipelines has remained an enduring form of sabotage.
Other advances were quickly made: wood-lined holes in the ground holding from 200 to 1,000 barrels were replaced by iron tanks holding up to 30,000 barrels; pipelines led directly from wells to storage centers and rail depots.
In the frenzied early days, oil buyers raced one another on horseback from wells to storage containers and rail depots, bargaining with producers and transporters. As rail lines were quickly laid between the Oil Regions and cities like Cleveland and Erie, the trains themselves, crowded with brokers, agents, speculators, and drillers, all of them smoking cigars and spilling whiskey, became de facto oil exchanges, the clattering wheels underfoot ratcheting up the hurtling momentum of epic enterprise.
By 1865, at least $100 million in capital had been sunk into the muddy, torn-up country between Titusville and Oil City; $350 million was spent in the region during the industry’s first decade.
Alongside the production of oil arose the frantic, equally tumultuous industry of refining it—initially into kerosene, oil’s first primary use. The process was easily and cheaply done, and a year after Drake struck oil, there were at least fifteen refineries up and down Oil Creek. Others sprang up all along the railroad lines between there and Pittsburgh, Erie, and Cleveland. With its established rail connections and a location at the industrial center of the Great Lakes, Cleveland would become the country’s leading refinery center by 1869. A young Cleveland accountant, John D. Rockefeller, was a month past his twentieth birthday when Drake struck oil. He had grown up on farms in New York and Ohio. Early in his life a number of empirically acquired lessons about the making of money made strong impressions on him. One of these he liked to relate for its clarity:
Among the early experiences that were helpful to me . . . was one in working a few days for a neighbor in digging potatoes—a very enterprising, thrifty farmer, who could dig a great many potatoes. I was a boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen years of age, and it kept me very busy from morning until night. It was a ten-hour day. And as I was saving these little sums I soon learned that I could get as much interest for fifty dollars loaned at seven per cent—the legal rate in the state of New York at that time for a year—as I could by digging potatoes for 100 days. The impression was gaining ground with me that it was a good thing to let the money be my slave and not make myself a slave to money.
At seventeen, Rockefeller was earning twenty-five dollars per month as a bookkeeper. He was always “saving a little money to put away.” At nineteen, with his modest savings, he established a produce-trading business on the Cleveland docks with a thirty-one-year-old Englishman, Maurice B. Clark. They reportedly made $450,000 in their first year. In 1862, Rockefeller and Clark opened their first oil refinery in Cleveland. By 1865, it was the largest of Cleveland’s thirty refineries, and that year Rockefeller bought Clark out for $72,500. He began buying other oil refineries, expanding and consolidating his business. In 1870, Rockefeller established the refining company of Standard Oil of Ohio, which, through the omnivorous incorporation of every competitor in its path, was largely successful in monopolizing the oil production and refinery industries in America, until that monopoly was broken by the Supreme Court in its historic antitrust case of 1911.
IN 1861, young “Hen” Rogers of Fairhaven and his friend Charles Ellis opened their own refinery near Oil City. They named it the Wamsutta Oil Refinery after the Indian whose name and mark appeared on the deed recording the purchase of the territory of Dartmouth. They cleared $30,000 in profits in their first year of production. In Oil City they met a fellow Massachusetts man, Charles Pratt, who had worked for a company in Boston specializing in whale oil-based paints and other products. Pratt was quick to see the advantages of petroleum over whale oil and opened his own petroleum oil refinery in Brooklyn, New York. Pratt contracted with Rogers and Ellis to supply him with their entire product (for him to distribute) at a fixed price. When the cost of oil rose and Wamsutta couldn’t meet its obligations, Wamsutta failed, heavily in debt to Pratt. Ellis returned to Fairhaven, but Rogers traveled to Brooklyn and told Pratt he would take responsibility for the debt and repay him. Pratt was so impressed that he hired Rogers. By 1867, Rogers was a partner in Charles Pratt and Company. When Standard Oil of Ohio had the company in its sights, Pratt and Rogers at first fought Rockefeller, but then capitulated, and Charles Pratt and Company was absorbed into the expanding maw of Standard Oil. Rogers eventually became a vice president of Standard Oil and, with investments in gas, steel, copper, coal, and railroads, one of the richest men in America. He acquired a reputation for ruthlessness in business, and the nickname “Hell-hound Rogers,” and he is often cited as the quintessential “robber baron.” But, like many of them, he was also a generous philanthropist, and donated millions of dollars for buildings and public works in Fairhaven.
PRODUCTION OF PENNSYLVANIA OIL rapidly increased on a scale beyond Bissell’s, or any other oilman’s, dreams: from 450,000 barrels in 1860 to more than 3 million barrels by 1862. The supply initially exceeded the demands of a market that was lagging well behind production: oil prices rose and fell mercurially, plummeting from ten dollars a barrel in January 1861 to ten cents by year’s end. But on April 12 of that year, Confederate batteries began firing on the Union garrison stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and war worked its industrial magic on the nascent oil business. Supplies of the cheap illuminant camphene, made from turpentine, which came from the South, were cut off, creating overnight a large and growing northern demand for kerosene made from Pennsylvania oil.
Abundant petroleum oil, and the resultant cheap kerosene, had a dramatic effect in the illuminant marketplace. In 1860, as the price of petroleum plummeted, whale oil was hovering around fourteen dollars per barrel. It was still the preferred illuminant for those who could afford it, and a superior lubricant, but the volume and the almost immediate availability of the output of the petroleum industry could not be ignored: a successful whaling voyage of three to four years might return three or four thousand barrels of oil; a single well in Pennsylvania could produce three thousand barrels of oil in a day. In its first six years, the petroleum industry produced more oil than all the whale oil brought home in the ninety years from 1816 to 1905.
WHILE HENRY ROGERS, Charles Pratt, John D. Rockefeller, and countless others recognized the sudden, gushing appearance of petroleum oil as an epic paradigm shift, George Jr. and Matthew Howland, and many other New Bedford merchants remained strangely oblivious to what was overtaking them. New Bedford remained cocooned in its history, complacent in the certainty of its holy mission and in the belief that things would go on as they had for more than a century. “Why not?” George Howland, Jr., had declaimed to his audience in 1864.
But coinciding with the sudden impact of the petroleum business, the Civil War proved a major disruption for the whale fishery. Seeking to put a stranglehold on the Confederacy’s supplies, Gideon Welles, the secretary of the Union navy, sent agents to New Bedford and other whaling ports to purchase twenty-five old vessels, of at least 250 tons each, to be filled with blocks of granite, sailed south, and sunk in the harbor mouths of Savannah and Charleston, stoppering up the South’s two most vital ports. For many whaling merchants, then burdened with aging vessels and a declining market, the appearance of Welles’s agents, offering ten dollars per ton for their oldest, most decrepit ships, was a boon. Fourteen of the twenty-five ships were purchased in New Bedford; the rest were found in Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, New London, Mystic, and Sag Harbor. New England’s ubiquitous fieldstone proved easier to obtain than quarried granite, and New Bedford’s farmers reaped an unexpected harvest selling their stone walls to government agents at fifty cents a ton. The “stone fleet,” as it came to be called, departed from New Bedford on November 20, 1861. The operation was supposed to be a clandestine war secret, but the town gave the fleet a send-off, with thousands cheering from the docks and a thirty-four-gun salute, with the result that the departure was reported the following day in The New York Times. Nevertheless, many of the Confederate forces in Savannah watching the fleet assemble outside the harbor believed it to be an invasion of warships, and, beating the stone fleet at its own game, sent a few of their own older ships out toward the fleet and sank them in the harbor channel. Many of the stone fleet’s ships arrived, after their stormy passage south, leaking so badly that they sank or grounded in ineffectual positions outside the harbor or near the shore. The remainder of the fleet was directed to sail on to Charleston, where sixteen vessels were sunk in a checkerboard pattern across Charleston’s main shipping channel. Secretary Welles was pleased with the result and ordered a second stone fleet organized and sailed south to Charleston, where it was also sunk in a checkerboard pattern in January 1862. The results did little to impede navigation into and out of Savannah and Charleston. Strong tidal currents racing between the Atlantic and the cities’ inland rivers soon broke up the weakened wrecks, scattered and buried their stone cargoes in the silt and mud, or made new channels. But the action of the stone fleets—something that, had it been successful, might have proved ruinous to the commerce of the cities and their civilians for decades after the war—was widely seen as a barbaric war crime, something beyond the pale of the gentlemanly code of war as then conducted. It was denounced not only throughout the South but also in France and England, and excoriated by The Times of London, which observed: “People who would do an act like this would pluck the sun out of the heavens, to put their enemies in darkness, or dry up the rivers, that no grass might for ever grow.”
The stone fleets may have been beneficial for shipowners, enabling them to sell off old vessels for good money, but the navy of the South had its own plans for disrupting the economy of the North, and the whale fishery lay directly in its sights. Confederate president Jefferson Davis and secretary of the Confederate navy Stephen Mallory dispatched an agent, James Bulloch, to England to procure warships that would attack the Union’s commercial shipping. Whaleships, as well as merchant vessels carrying oil from New Bedford to London—the oil tankers of the nineteenth century—were crucial to the Northern war machine. Britain was neutral during the Civil War, its subjects and businesses forbidden to aid either side. While Bulloch, an American, was allowed by law to commission the building and outfitting of ships in Britain, and even purchase arms there, he was careful to deal with different firms for every item, and keep his arms and ships separate, to minimize the possibility of his suppliers’ being seen to be aiding the Confederate war effort. Even when his activities were discovered by Union spies and the British government was informed of his purpose, Bulloch was found to be operating within the strict letter of British law, and the government could not stop him. The Confederacy’s loophole-enabled warship Alabama , a 210-foot steam-auxiliary-powered sailing ship, built by the Birkenhead Ironworks in Liverpool, was launched on July 29, 1862. It sailed immediately to the Azores, where Bulloch had already dispatched a ship loaded with arms and supplies. On September 5, off those whale-infested islands, the Alabama approached the Edgartown whaleship Ocmulgee. Flying the Stars and Stripes, the Alabama gave no alarm to the whalers, but as she hove up close alongside, the Union colors were lowered and the Confederate flag was raised. The whaleship’s captain, Abraham Osborne, later deplored this subterfuge as a “disgraceful” ruse. Like all whaleships, the Ocmulgee was defenseless, barring the few personal firearms that might be carried by the captain or a mate. The Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, ordered the ship’s crew into their whaleboats, whereupon the Ocmulgee was burned. The whalemen were allowed to row themselves to a nearby island.
Whaleships proved the easiest of prey: they congregated in fleets on known whaling grounds and, like the Ocmulgee, could offer no defense. The Alabama captured and burned nine whaleships off the Azores during September. Over the next twenty-one months, she destroyed forty-six whaleships in the Atlantic, twenty-five of them from New Bedford. She was finally sunk off Cherbourg, France, by the USS Kearsarge, but Bulloch quickly purchased another British ship, the steam-auxiliary East India merchant ship Sea King. She was sailed to Madeira, where Bulloch had another supply vessel waiting to arm and outfit her. The Sea King was rechristened Shenandoah, and her new master was a luxuriantly mustachioed former U.S. Navy lieutenant from North Carolina, James I. Waddell. He was ordered to take his ship to “the far-distant Pacific,” specifically to hunt down the Union’s whaling fleet. Before the Shenandoah had left the South Atlantic, Waddell encountered and burned the New Bedford whaler Edward near the island of Tristan da Cunha. He sailed on to Melbourne, Australia, where the Shenandoah underwent repairs and loaded coal. It was early 1865 before she reached the Pacific. In the Caroline Islands, Waddell captured four whaleships, and with them their captains’ detailed charts of the whaling grounds of the Pacific, the Okhotsk and Bering seas, and the Arctic Ocean—where he could sail directly and be assured of finding dozens of whaleships. In May, on the Kamchatka grounds, Waddell captured and burned the New Bedford ship Abigail. In June, his crew observed floating pieces of blubber in the Bering Sea and soon afterward encountered the ships William Thompson and Euphrates, both from New Bedford. Their crews were taken aboard the Shenandoah and the ships burned. The next day three more New Bedford whaleships, Milo, Sophia Thornton, and Jireh Swift, were captured—the last two after a chase through the ice floes. The captain of the Swift was Thomas Williams; because of the war, his wife Eliza, son Willie, and daughter Mary were for once not with him but living ashore in San Francisco. At this point, Waddell had a full shipload of Union whaling crews as prisoners, so after burning the Sophia Thornton and the Jireh Swift, he ransomed the Milo to its captain for an IOU of $46,000, to be paid by the Milo’s owners to the Confederacy after the war, then loaded that whaleship with all the captured whalemen and set them free. The Milo sailed to San Francisco, where many of the whalemen promptly found berths aboard other whaleships.
Waddell had had no news of the war since leaving Australia until, late in June 1865, he found newspapers aboard a captured trading ship with reports of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. While this was disastrous news for the Confederacy, Waddell remained uncertain of the outcome of the war, so he continued to do what he could for the South. The Shenandoah steamed on through the Bering Sea, eventually capturing and burning another fifteen vessels, and sending a second ransomed ship full of prisoners back to San Francisco. Finally, anxious for further war news, Waddell sailed the Shenandoah south, where, in August, off the California coast, he sighted a British merchant ship, closed with it, and learned that the war was indeed over and that the South had lost. Realizing that his most recent captures and burnings had probably taken place after the war’s end, Waddell continued sailing south, intent on avoiding capture. The Shenandoah rounded Cape Horn and, completing a circumnavigation of the world, reached England on November 5, 1865. The arrival was an embarrassment for the British government, which had allowed the ship to sail from there thirteen months earlier, and failed to stop it in Melbourne, by which time it had already sunk a whaleship and its mission was clear. According to The Times of London:
The reappearance of the Shenandoah in British waters is an untoward and unwelcome event. When we last heard of this notorious cruiser she was engaged in a pitiless raid upon American whalers in the North Pacific. . . . It is much to be regretted . . . that no federal man-of-war succeeded in capturing the Shenandoah before she cast herself, as it were, upon our mercy.
The American press urged that Waddell and his men either be tried in England for piracy or handed over to the U.S. government. The ship was turned over to the American consul in London, but Waddell and his men were set free. Waddell remained in England for ten years, until he was hired as captain on the mail packet running between Yokohama and San Francisco. He eventually settled in Annapolis and died there in 1886.
EVEN BEFORE EDWIN DRAKE HIT OIL, two of New Bedford’s largest whaling merchants were getting out of the business, in favor of enterprises they believed held sounder prospects for the future.
Joseph Grinnell, born in 1788, was the heir to one of the town’s largest and most successful whaling enterprises, formed by his father, Cornelius Grinnell, and his uncle, Gideon Howland, Jr. Joseph worked for them until he was twenty-two, when he moved to New York City and there, with another uncle, John Howland, started a trading and shipping business called Howland and Grinnell. They were very successful until the War of 1812, which again saw the destruction and confiscation by the British of American property and ships, including Howland and Grinnell’s. John Howland returned to New Bedford, but Joseph, who could have gone home and worked for his father again, remained in New York. He was unusually independent-minded, and this fact would prove crucial to his later career, and to the future of New Bedford. With his cousin, the preposterously named Captain Preserved Fish, he started another shipping and mercantile business in New York, under the name Fish and Grinnell. Joseph’s two younger brothers, Henry and Moses, later joined them. Captain Fish retired in 1825, and Robert Minturn, Henry Grinnell’s brother-in-law, joined the firm, which then changed its name to Grinnell, Minturn & Co.—the firm that owned Thomas Roys’s ship, the Superior.
In early middle age Joseph Grinnell returned to New Bedford, leaving his brothers and Minturn in charge of the business in New York City and Sag Harbor. As if to make up for leaving it in his youth, he then devoted himself to doing everything he could for his hometown. He became president of the Marine Bank, holding that position from its founding, in 1832, until he resigned, in 1878. He was president of the New Bedford and Taunton Railroad, and of the Boston and Providence Railroad. In 1843, he was elected to Congress to serve the unexpired term of the deceased New Bedford district congressman Barker Burnell (he was reelected for three additional terms).
While in Washington in 1847, Grinnell met with a group of businessmen who were interested in opening a cotton mill in Georgia, where the manufacture of cotton was extremely profitable at that time. Grinnell was intrigued by the plan, but the Mexican-American War had recently begun, in the wake of the annexation of Texas and the disputed territories, and the threat of hostilities reached deep into the American South. Grinnell proposed that the mill be built in New Bedford, where he was sure the investment would be safe, and where he knew a work-force was available. Whaling in New Bedford was then still approaching its zenith, already one of America’s leading and most important industries, but Joseph Grinnell had a prescient notion that it might not always be so. He had been nearly ruined in whaling and shipping when young, and perhaps he had a better instinct than most for the vagaries of a business pinned to the imponderables of ships, the sea, and the already diminishing resource of whales.
Grinnell and his partners sought a subscription of $300,000 to capitalize the mill, and to build and outfit it with 15,000 spindles and 300 looms. It was to be called the Wamsutta Mill. Grinnell put up $10,000 of his own money, but despite great efforts, only $157,000 was raised. The whale fishery, then generating previously unimagined wealth and a dot-com-like frenzy of irrational exuberance, was sucking up every available investment dollar, and New Bedford was its Silicon Valley. “Everyone who had money to invest sought for opportunities to join with some favorite agent in the numerous vessels that were being added to the fleet,” wrote historian Leonard Ellis. “The profits were large and very certain, and the entire prosperity of the place had grown out of it. This was the one great obstacle in the way of getting sufficient capital for the first mill.”
Grinnell was bucking the trend. Finally he invested another $2,100 of his own money to bring the initial capitalization to $160,000. The mill was built of brick, at the north end of town, conveniently sited between the river and the New Bedford and Taunton Railroad line, both of which would be of use. Ten thousand spindles and 200 looms were installed. The first Wamsutta Mill began operation in the spring of 1849. As soon as its cotton products—shirtcloth, cambrics, muslins, cloths of all types and qualities—reached the market, they were successfully sold and created a demand for more. Coastal New Bedford was found to have natural advantages for the manufacture of cotton goods: there is a year-round dampness and softness to the air that is favorable for the handling of cotton yarns; winters along the Buzzards Bay shore are mild, and summers far cooler than those in Georgia, making comfortable working conditions for mill employees. According to Ellis: “From observations made from 1849 to 1874 the operatives in New Bedford enjoyed better health than those employed in interior towns, and consequently the amount of earnings was correspondingly increased.”
So successful was the first Wamsutta Mill that a second was built alongside it and began operation in the fall of 1854. A third mill was built in 1860-1861, a fourth in 1870, a fifth in 1875, and a sixth in 1882. By then the Wamsutta mills employed 2,200 people, housing them in “comfortable” tenements with five to seven rooms in each unit at rents of $5.25 to $7.50 per month. Joseph Grinnell remained president of the Wamsutta Mills Corporation until his death in 1885. With uncanny foresight, he got out of the whaling business at its height and put his money in what seemed in the beginning a very dubious venture.
EDWARD MOTT ROBINSON was “from away.” Born in Philadelphia, in 1800, to a prominent Quaker family, he began his business career manufacturing cotton with his brother in Rhode Island. But Robinson was an ambitious man and moved to New Bedford around 1833 to get into the oil business. His shrewdest move was his marriage, within a year of his arrival in New Bedford, to one of Isaac Howland, Jr.’s, two grand-daughters, Abby. Two weeks after the wedding, Isaac Howland, Jr., died, leaving Robinson, with one other partner, in charge of the largest whaling fleet—eventually more than thirty ships—and fortune in New Bedford. Robinson was described as “forceful, energetic, pushing and far-sighted in business,” and “not personally popular.” He was a physically imposing man. Nelson Cole Haley, a harpooner aboard the whaleship Charles W. Morganwhen it was owned by Robinson, later remembered him vividly, from when he signed his shipping papers in Robinson’s office in 1849: “I found him to be a tall man (six feet at least) with keen black eyes and a hawkbill nose, with a very dark complexion. I then saw why he was nicknamed ‘Black Hawk.’ ”
Along with the industry’s improving conditions, Robinson’s intelligence and business sense were responsible for the continued growth of Isaac Howland, Jr., Company through the boon decades of the first half of the nineteenth century. Yet at the industry’s peak, in the 1850s, he, like Joseph Grinnell, saw and acted upon early signs of whaling’s decline. Before Drake’s oil well, before the outbreak of the Civil War, and during the years of growing whaling harvests in the Arctic, Robinson began transferring his fortune and assets out of whaling and New Bedford. When his wife, Abby, died in 1860, he wound up Isaac Howland, Jr., & Company completely, selling off its ships and wharves, and his personal property, and moved to New York, done with whaling. (On Edward Mott Robinson’s death in June 1865, his daughter and only child, Hetty Robinson, inherited his estate, worth over $5 million. Just two weeks after Robinson’s death, Hetty’s maiden aunt, Abby’s sister, Sylvia Ann Howland, died, leaving Hetty another $2 million, making her the richest woman in the world. Later reviled as “the witch of Wall Street” for both her financial acuity and her infamous parsimony—she was unwilling to pay for a doctor until it was too late, and thus an infection in her son’s leg resulted in a needless amputation—Hetty parlayed her $7 million into a personal fortune of $100 million by the time of her death in 1916.)
Neither Grinnell nor Robinson subscribed to the sense of divinely directed mission that kept many of New Bedford’s Old Light Quakers, like George Howland and both his sons, unalterably wedded to the whale fishery. Grinnell and Robinson were Quakers by heritage, but they were businessmen first.
YET EVEN AS WHALE OIL became scarcer, and petroleum more abundant and cheaper, there emerged a new and surging ancillary market supplied by the whale fishery. Coinciding with the discovery of the arctic bowhead, richly endowed with an abundance of baleen of great length, came the demand for “whalebone,” as baleen was termed. This had long been merely a by-product of oil-gathering; the densely fronded mouths of right whales had long been cast adrift after the blankets of blubber had been peeled off an animal. But from the mid-nineteenth century onward, an array of new products appeared that made ingenious use of this natural plastic: in addition to corsets and buggy whips and the hoops for increasingly fuller skirt fashions, baleen was used for umbrellas, parasols, neck stocks, canes, billiard-table cushions, pen-holders, paper folders and cutters, graining-combs for painters, fishing rods, bows, divining rods, boot shanks, shoehorns, brushes, mattresses, policemen’s clubs, and a variety of medical instruments, including tongue-scrapers, probangs (“a slender, flexible rod with a sponge on one end used . . . for removing obstructions from the esophagus”), and applicators of iodine to the cervix for the treatment of tumors of the uterus. In 1848, the year Thomas Roys sailed into the Arctic, whalebone was worth twenty-five cents per pound. By 1863, it was worth more than $1.50 per pound. In that year, the ship Onward, owned by the Howland brothers’ cousin Edward Howland, docked with a cargo of 62,100 pounds of “bone,” fetching $95,000. Yet as the value of baleen continued to rise, the total catch was already dropping fast, from a high of 5,652,360 pounds landed in 1853, to only 488,750 pounds in 1863.
With the withdrawal, by the 1860s, of the businesses of Grinnell and Robinson and the rest of the fleet thinned out by the war, George Jr. and Matthew Howland found a greater portion of the whale fishery left to them. While others were diversifying, or abandoning the whaling business altogether, the Howland brothers’ concentration of all their assets and focus on the single enterprise started by their father was paying more than ever. They were still making a lot of money “very fast lately in the whaling business,” as R. G. Dun noted. They enjoyed numerous advantages over their remaining competitors: their firm was an old one, long established; their vessels, wharves, candle-making, and other interests had paid for themselves many times over. By sending a large number of ships to sea, they enjoyed the statistical unlikelihood of a significant loss of property—the loss of one ship would not be catastrophic to their business, and less costly than insuring their entire fleet. Matthew Howland, the mathematical-minded brother who kept to the countinghouse, calculated that in a ten-year period only 1.5 percent of New Bedford’s entire fleet had been lost at sea. So, with insurance running at 10 percent (or more) of a ship’s valuation, the brothers chose not to insure their ships, but rather to build another, the Concordia , and to send it, along with the rest of their fleet, to the Arctic.