The whaling museum is not only a monument to Nantucket’s whaling era, which drove the island’s economy for more than a century, but it’s a window into its past. The NHA spent $11 million during an 18-month period between October 2003 and June 2005 renovating its whaling museum into a 28,000-square-foot structure by expanding it into where its second floor research library used to be and connecting the Peter Foulger Building to Hadwen-Barney Candle Factory, creating one seamless exhibit out of a multitude of artifacts and text.
Believe it or not, Nantucket did not invent whaling, despite its famous moniker of being the Whaling Capital of the World from 1800 to 1840.
The Nantucket Historical Association and island historian and writer Nat Philbrick would tell you that Yarmouth native Ichabod Paddock likely helped introduce early Nantucketers to whaling in 1690, although in 1672, whalemen from ‘round the Point were enticed to move to Nantucket and teach whaling for oil to the settlers.
But the origin of whaling dates back more than a millennium before Paddock set foot on the island to sometime between A.D. 800 and 1,000 when Norwegian whalers and the Basque people on the north coast of France and Spain went after Northern Right whales, hurling harpoons from small boats, for their meat.
Before Ichabod Paddock brought his Whaling 101 lecture series to the island, Native Americans on Nantucket, using their rights to whatever “drift” whales washed up dead on shore, did most of the whale harvesting. As for the settlers, organized whaling barely existed. Paddock showed Nantucketers how to scout for whales from the south shore and then how to get out to them in 20-foot boats to harpoon and tow them into shore. Whaling dominated Nantucket’s economy by the 1700s, but the trips in sailing vessels were short because the blubber, chopped up and stored in barrels, had to last until the whalers could reach Nantucket to boil out the oil. After 1750, whaling ships fitted with onboard try works could spend months, even years at sea going after whales, and filling barrels with their oil instead chunks of blubber.
The discovery of crude oil in the U.S. in 1859 by Edwin Drake in Titusville, Pa. and later in Texas, California and Oklahoma along with the invention of technology for oil distillation into kerosene in 1853, and the decline of whale species around the world, effectively ended profitable commercial whaling for Nantucket and many nations basing their economies on whaling.
In 1946 after these highly efficient and deadly whalers depleted the planet’s whale species by 80 to 90 percent, the United Nations passed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which then formed the International Whaling Commission to protect declining species of whales.
The Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum, at 15 Broad Street in downtown Nantucket, is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and costs $20 for adults, $18 for seniors 65 and older, and $5 for children six to 17.