To local historian , Greenport would not be what it is today if it weren't for the whaling industry of the 19th century. From the last quarter of the 1700s until 1861 — when the last whaling ship left Greenport — the village was 17th in importance as a U.S. whaling port. Ports like those in New Bedford and Nantucket made up the rest of the 72 U.S. ports and hosted 2,000 ships over the years.
Tools, whale bones, portraits, models of ships, and narratives describing the era are on display in a small but comprehensive exhibit currently set up at the across from Capital One Bank on Main Street in Greenport. "Blow, Thar She Blows— Whaling in Greenport" will be set up through Labor Day.
Though the work might seem gruesome and cruel to us today — a first glance at the spears, hooks and other tools used to take down a whale might make you wince, the production of whale oil was a vital part of the economy and a major source of fuel for the 19th century person. Whaling structured Greenport physically and introduced a diversity of people to the area, something that can still be seen on the village today, Horton said.
"Whalers were not all White Anglo Saxon Protestants — they were people from all over the world," she said. "Freed slaves were excellent whalers."
The Sells family of Greenport were a family of freed slaves living in the village at the time and working as whalers. Their heritage is a mix of African-American and Native American lines such as Montaukett, Shinnecock and Setauket, according the exhibit. The story of black whaler Pyrrhus Concer is also told at the exhibit. He sailed out of the Port of Sag Harbor in 1845 on the ship the Manhattan, and on an expedition in the North Pacific, he and the crew saved 11 stranded Japanese sailors — none who'd ever seen a black person before.
The display also includes a large model of the whale ship Neva (the one that boughthere from the Azores), a kids corner complete with history of whaling coloring books, and a certification signed by Abraham Lincoln appointing E.E.D Skinner as Surveyor of the Port. Skinner is Greenport resident David Corwin's great-great grandfather. Pat Mundus and Cliff Benfield, who loaned much of his collection of Long Island Whaling articles, were the curators.
Due in large part to the discovery of petroleum, the whaling industry died out in Greenport in the 1850s and soon came to a halt in the rest of the country. The public prefered petroleum over whale oil as a fuel — it was cheaper, cleaner and could be easily stored. But tragically, the whaling era caused a near extinction of the great mammal.
"Whalers really had no concept of animal cruelty as we do today," Horton said. "But they were tough, tough people, and their diversity was remarkable."
Call the Stirling Historical Society at 631-477-3026 for more information.