Moby Dick
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WHEN MOBY DICK CAME TO PORT ARTHUR:
200,000 VISITORS SAW WHALE

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, February 21, 1978;
also from TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, Nov., 1981.
Sources: Galveston DAILY NEWS, March 9-20, 1910, also all area papers of March, 1910, and photos and pamphlets belonging to Ms. Julia Plummer, now deceased.

"When Captain Cott Plummer succeeded in lassoing a live, 60-ton whale and towing it into port, his feat of derring-do captured the fancy of Americans everywhere."

In the same manner that Herman Melville's great white whale had a symbolic meaning, a deep-sea denizen of the sperm variety had a literal significance to the Southeast Texans living in 1910. On March 10 of that year, a live and grayish Moby Dick, 63 feet long and 60 tons in weight, traveled involuntarily through the new ship channel to Port Arthur, spawning two weeks of unparalleled excitement throughout the Southwest.

Unlike the cows and calves of that breed, old sperm whale bulls frequently leave their tropical habitat to explore the North Atlantic Ocean, and this gray Moby was making one of the rare appearances of large whales in Texas' coastal waters. Apparently pursuing a school of squid or cuttlefish, the whale miscalculated the water's 12-foot depth and became grounded in the "oil pond," a mass of floating seaweed, three miles west of the Sabine estuary jetties.

Although hopelessly mired, Gray Moby intended to die with his boots on. His giant, 18-foot fluke slapped the water incessantly as the whale sought in vain to extricate himself. The resulting noise and geysers of sea water finally attracted the attention of Cott Plummer, who was passing at some distance away on the pilot boat "Florida," and whose curiosity caused him to investigate the cause of the disturbance.

Capt. Plummer, a member of a long line of Maine schooner masters, had heard the sounds from four miles away and upon reaching the scene, supposed that a steamer had capsized. Upon discovering that the 'steamer' was alive, he carefully evaluated the whale's predicament, his mind immediately hatching a scheme as bold and daring as was his family's history.

Plummer decided to try to loop Gray Moby's fluke with a 5-inch hawser and tow the big mammal into Sabine Pass, Texas, the port city at the mouth of the Sabine inlet or estuary where the captain lived. There was reasonable hope that the pilot boat might accomplish that feat, for the "Florida" was actually a 350-horsepower steam tugboat.

Since Gray Moby lay perpendicular to the beach, each lash of his tail served only to mire the big mammal deeper in the soft mud, and to generate a new series of ground swells. This perpetual motion made any activity near the whale's fluke impossible. Realizing this, Capt. Plummer signaled a nearby sailboat to assist him in the lassoing of the monster. He moved both vessels into the lea waters ahead of the whale, and passed a 5-inch hawser between the boats, intending to maneuver the line through the soft mud underneath the mammal and to rig a loop which could be tightened around Gray Moby's fan-shaped fluke.

The first attempt failed because the hawser did not sink deep enough, lodging instead in the monster's jaws, where it was promptly bitten in two. On the second attempt, Plummer attached a kedge anchor to sink the line deeper. Gradually the two vessels worked the line under the whale to a point where one end could be threaded through the kedge anchor, and a loop formed which was then tightened around Gray Moby's fluke.

With the "Florida's" horsepower tugging at the taut line, Plummer's best-laid plans soon went awry, for the hawser frayed and snapped like a bowstring. Undaunted, however, the captain steamed to a nearby dredgeboat and borrowed an 8-inch hawser. The two vessels then repeated the tedious procedure, in time securely looping the big line around the sea monster's tail as well as to the towboat's stern.

As the "Florida's" propeller churned vigorously again among the whitecaps, Gray Moby grudgingly gave way and slid from the mudbank into deeper water. Nevetheless, during spurts of his almost-spent energy, the ungrateful and angered whale managed to tow the tugboat rather than be towed. Eight hours ticked away along the five-mile route into port, and as darkness approached, the "Florida" arrived at Sabine Pass, where the captain securely lashed his tow to the pilings in the Southern Pacific Railroad's docking slip.

Gray Moby did not appear to be any worse off as a result of his ordeal, remaining "decidedly lively at times." With a single swish of his fan-shaped tail, the penned monster artificially created high or low tide in the docking slip at his own discretion. However, the big mammal's constant tugging at the towline indicated that, if granted his singular desire, Gray Moby would gladly relinquish his rent-free berth to some paying customer and head for safer depths in the Gulf of Mexico.

News of the whale's arrival, the biggest fish story ever hatched in the tall-tale state, spread like windswept wildfire across the salt grass prairies. Telegraph keys sped the story across the nation, where all newspapers gave it front-page coverage. A local editor injected a humorous note, when he retracted his earlier statement that, upon boarding Gray Moby, customs officials had found Jonah at the wheel without a validated pilot's license.

It was necessary to squelch many of the earlier reports, for few Texans would admit to being less than authorities on whales. Some reported the monster as being 90 feet long and 300 tons in weight. Those who were less informed on the subject found it expedient to consult the encyclopedias, which spawned the usual multitude of questions: "What kind and how old is it? Can it be kept alive in captivity? Where did it come from? Is it a 'he' or a 'she'?"

Having devoted the entire day of March 8 to the whale's capture, Capt. Plummer had given little thought to its effect, for Gray Moby immediately became a sensation and lucrative bonanza that everyone wanted to see. On the next day, spectators began arriving long before the captain was prepared to exhibit his catch. Plummer hastily sold tickets for 50 cents, which enabled the purchaser to view the whale as long as desired or to return. Each visitor insisted on seeing Gray Moby exhaust his breath through his single blowhole. This occurred at intervals of about 15 minutes, the expulsion of warm air immediately taking on the appearance of water due to rapid vaporization.

The earliest sightseers came by rail, automobile, and boat from the neighboring cities of Port Arthur, Beaumont and Orange, and each returned to spread his account of the marvelous monster at Sabine Pass. Some were bold enough to climb down on the mammal's back, and one visitor, R. R. Bowie of Beaumont, almost slid overboard for Gray Moby's hide was still moist and slimy. At the end of the first day, Capt. Plummer had taken in more than $200 in ticket sales.

Port Arthur's Board of Trade quickly sensed the possibilities for promotion that the big whale offered, and before the day ended, negotiated an agreement with Plummer to exhibit the monster fish in their city. A fledgling but thriving community as of 1910, Port Arthur was founded 15 years earlier as the southern terminus of the Kansas City Southern Railroad. Its promotors, the railroad entrepreneurs Arthur Stilwell and John W. Gates, had completed a shipping channel to the sea, and aided by the mammoth oil discovery at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas, had already built Port Arthur into a principal shipping and oil refining complex.

The Board of Trade arranged with Southern Pacific, Missouri Pacific, Kansas City Southern, Santa Fe, and other railroads to run lengthy advertisements and excursion trains at all feasible points in Texas and Louisiana. Before the whale arrived, 100 carpenters began the construction of a fence and platform around one of the city's docking slips. The promoters hoped to exhibit Gray Moby alive, but realized that his death was immiment upon his reaching fresh water, and that the ordeal had already sapped the monster of most of his strength.

On the afternoon of March 10, Capt. Plummer cut Gray Moby loose from his pilings at Sabine Pass and began the eight-mile journey to Port Arthur. Again at first, the whale showed an inclination to tow rather than be towed, but soon quieted, the second trip, which was both uneventful and accomplished without mishap, arriving at 11 o'clock at night. While the "Florida" towed the mammal, a second towboat, with a line attached, followed close behind to steady the whale and prevent him from 'jackknifing' in the ship channel. While it is not known exactly when the whale expired, it was soon discernible that Gray Moby no longer breathed.

Since his spouting performance had been widely publicized, the whale's death came as a great disappointment, but was somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that Gray Moby could be exhibited much better on shore than afloat. Early on March 11, several hundred workmen began the digging and flooring of an angular slope down to water level over which the whale could be winched. The necessary hoisting engines and equipment were set in place, and an elaborate lighting system was installed so that Gray Moby could be viewed at night.

On the same day, more than 1,500 tickets were sold to persons who were content to see only the visible portion of a largely submerged whale. There was standing room only on the arriving trains, and the shelled road (West Port Arthur) to Beaumont was dotted with incoming autos. At Orange and Beaumont, available yachts and motor launches were busy carrying passengers to Port Arthur, where private autos were pressed into service as taxicabs. The railroads quickly moved extra coaches and locomotives to those distant points where excursion trains had been scheduled. In the interest of science, the Board of Trade invited Dr. H. H. Newman, the chief zoologist at the University of Texas in Austin, to come to Port Arthur and make a thorough study of the dead mammal.

At noon on Friday, March 11, the steam winches hoisted Gray Moby from the ship channel, and for the first time, the entire bulk of the sea monster became visible. Up until then, 90% of his bulk had lain submerged in the water. A team of 20 butchers hurried to remove the whale's vital organs, his stomach, liver, intestines, heart, lungs, etc., so that the abdominal cavity could be packed with ice in an effort to retard putrefaction as long as possible. Except for their mammoth size, the organs were found to be very similar to those of smaller mammals, the heart alone weighing almost a half-ton. Throughout the afternoon, there was a steady stream of wagons, filled with ice, which was stacked on the big monster's external parts. Barrels of embalming fluid, potassium permanganate, and other preservatives were pumped into the huge carcass.

While the disembowelment of the whale was in progress, the state zoologist, Dr. Newman, arrived to complete his study of Gray Moby. The mammal's measurements were: length overall, 63 1/2 feet; circumference of head, 37 feet; and length of lower jaw, 11 feet. The whale's lungs and stomach were filled with tons of sea weed and silty mud from the 'oil pond,' which the zoologist believed had strangled the whale. Newman also confirmed that Gray Moby was probably the ex-king of some tropical sperm whale herd, defeated and driven into exile by a younger bull.

On Saturday, the first excursion train to arrive carried 2,000 Beaumont school children. Elsewhere, scheduled trains prepared to depart from such distant points as Corpus Christi, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Lufkin, Shreveport, Texarkana, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. On Sunday, March 14, fourteen trains, carrying 11,000 persons, arrived; and to that figure must be added those arriving by boat, auto, buggy, or other conveyance, which swelled the daily multitude of sightseers beyond the 20,000 mark. Each train was quickly packed like sardines, and although additional coaches were added to each while en route, crowds estimated at 100,000 were left stranded in the depots of two states. On Monday, preachers everywhere were lamenting the fact that a single whale could empty the church pews throughout the Southwest.

Despite the Board of Trade's extensive preparations to feed throngs of people, including temporary street concession stands, Port Arthur exhausted its food supply on Sunday afternoon, and telegraph orders for additional stocks were immediately shipped by boat and rail from Houston and Galveston.

Between March 14 and 17, the daily torrent of sightseers remained constant at about 20,000. The visitors bore the hardships without grumbling, regarding them as a necessary price to pay for the opportunity to view Gray Moby. Since the few hotels were soon booked to capacity in advance, a visit for most persons might include from 36 to 40 hours without sleep, two-thirds of that time while standing aboard a packed train.

By Wednesday, March 16, the whale's state of decomposition caused the carcass to emit considerable stench, but that factor did not impede the endless procession of visitors. A handkerchief soon covered every nose, and one account noted that "a stinking good time was had by all." Most of the smell was created by oil that leaked from Gray Moby's blubbery exterior. Eventually, the site was adjudged a hazard to public health, and the odorous whale and his platform were winched aboard a large barge in the ship channel, where the public exhibition continued through the next Sunday.

The whale display resulted in a $1,000,000 gratuity for the merchants of Port Arthur and added another million to the coffers of the Texas and Louisiana railroads. Gray Moby's owners, Captains Cott and Fred Plummer, also profited handsomely, receiving $1,000 for bringing the mammal to Port Arthur and a percentage of ticket sales. Believing further that Gray Moby could be exhibited indefinitely if mounted and stuffed, the brothers organized the Mammoth Whale Company in pursuance of that goal.

The smelly barge was anchored downstream, where the tedious process of cutting away the decaying flesh and blubber from the inside was begun. Gray Moby's head yielded 26 barrels of sperm oil in addition to 300 barrels of whale oil rendered from the blubber. The skeleton and hide were cleaned and preserved, and the barge was then towed to Harrisburg, Texas, where a leading taxidermist was engaged to restore the whale. Fifty men worked 7 1/2 months to give Gray Moby a lifelike appearance at a cost of $5,000. Special derricks and equipment were required to handle the huge bones. And eventually, the preserved whale hide was stuffed with hay, and when latter mounted on the power boat "Olga," began a tour "of all the principal port cities of the United States."

The Mammoth Whale Company, however, proved to be a financial debacle for the Plummer brothers. Gray Moby no longer attracted the vast throngs that he had at Port Arthur, and those who did come to view the whale were incredulous, believing that the hide had been stretched and stuffed far beyond the original size. The brothers were greatly relieved when a Memphis, Tennessee, amusement park operator offered to buy the whale and leave him on permanent display in a tent near the banks of the Mississippi River.

But Gray Moby's stay in Memphis was to prove of short duration. One night, the tent caught fire, and whale hide, bones, and hay went up in smoke, an ignominious demise indeed for the old sperm denizen that had provided a moment of relaxation and excitement for thousands of Americans in Texas and Louisiana.

Copyright 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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