Chatham's Masters Of The Sea

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Historic , Local Museums

Sea captains subject of Atwood House exhibit. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

The Atwood House Museum will kick off its new summer exhibit “Masters of the Sea,” which tells the story of Chatham’s great days as a 19th century training ground for the best ship’s captains in the world, on June 17.

“Masters of the Sea” relates the fascinating tales of danger and excitement faced by eight sea captains and a sailmaker born in Chatham and Harwich between 1838 and 1854. (The sailmaker, Charles A. Howes, didn’t take to the sea. His grandfather kept the light at Monomoy and his father was a weir fisherman.) In the early 1930s, when Howes and the captains were all in their late 70s through early 90s, they posed for the Chatham artist Frederick Wight. And as they posed, they reminisced about their days at sea, with Wight’s mother, the artist Alice Stallknecht, jotting down their recollections. Most of the captains died within a couple of years of Wight painting their portraits.

“They had led such dangerous lives and yet were healthy and thriving in their later years,” Danielle Jeanloz, executive director of the Chatham Historical Society, says about Wight’s nine subjects.

In setting up the exhibit in the main gallery, Jeanloz was aided by Kevin Wright of Harwich, the society’s administration and operations assistant, and about 20 talented volunteers.

The group created an exhibit designed to appeal to all ages. It incorporates technology and even a table of Legos where children can build a ship. “We’re trying to really broaden our appeal to get more people involved in the museum,” Jeanloz says. “This is our job: to bring [the history] to life.”

It is now nearly 90 years since Wight completed the portraits. Stallknecht and her husband, Carol Wight, first came to Chatham in 1910 and lived on a farm at the end of Stage Harbor Road. Their son Fred Wight was born in 1902. By the time Wight painted the sea captains, he had graduated from college and also had spent two years in Paris studying art. Stallknecht, meanwhile, depicted the people of Chatham in three murals now on display in the museum’s Mural Barn.

So what made Chatham’s captains so sought after by ships’ owners? Navigating Chatham’s own treacherous waters did.

“They were world-renowned because they were some of the best at handling the shoals,” Jeanloz says. “They really developed their skills out here on the challenging waters.”

The men went to sea as teens and worked their way up to captaining their own ships. The prime of these captains’ professional lives overlapped with the days of the China trade. And sometimes they transported more than porcelain.

“Went to China for nine years. Nine years of carting Chinamen,” Capt. Isaac W. White remembered. “Agents in China used to collect them. Poor men. Starving…Chinamen were shipped all over the world. There was a big trade in them.”

A touch screen on one wall broadcasts the captains’ life stories as told to Stallknecht. Author Marcia J. Monbleau collected the stories in a 1996 book “A Home on the Rolling Deep: The Stories of Eight Chatham Sea Captains.” Local residents such as the actor Scott Hamilton, Jan Nickerson and Barbara Semple narrate various stories at the touch of a button on the screen.

And the stories are dramatic. The captains faced headwinds, gales, snow, sleet, scurvy and mutiny. Oliver E. Eldredge was captain when one of his crewmates, a man from Harwich, complained of a backache and “broke out terrible.” A pilot came on board and made the horrid diagnosis: “Smallpox!” Eldredge discharged his crew and disinfected his vessel. Of the man with smallpox, he said, “Worst sight I ever saw.”

These captains traveled around the world carrying ice, figs, rum, hay, horses, soft coal, Chinese workers and molasses. After working in the molasses all day, “head to foot, covered with it,” they’d jump overboard and then hang their clothes to dry on the deck.

The museum has a total of 11 galleries. In the Pendleton Rescue Exhibit section is a life-size model of the CG36500, the boat that the Coast Guard rescuers used to save 32 crewmen from the doomed ship Pendleton in February 1952. You can enter the model and get the feeling of how cramped the boat was on the night of the dramatic rescue at sea.

Also up and running is the Nautical Chart Display, a collection of 41 digitized nautical charts. The museum has been given a Chatham Community Preservation grant to restore its collection of 120 charts.

The Atwood House Museum will be open on Friday, June 17 and Saturday, June 18 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sunday, June 19 from 2 to 4 p.m. during Chatham History Weekend. Admission is free all three days. Spotlight talks on various topics will be given on Friday and Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. And on Sunday at 2 p.m. the “At the Atwood Lecture Series” will continue with “Attack on Orleans” by Jake Klim, the author of “Attack on Orleans: The World War I Submarine Raid on Cape Cod.” Admission is free.

For regular museum hours through October, visit www.chathamhistoricalsociety.org.