Researcher tracks whaling ship that inspired Melville and Moby Dick to Amesbury Massachusetts
Written by Amesbury historian Steve Klomps published in Newburyport News
Sailors and maritime historians the world over know the story of the whale ship Essex, which sailed from Nantucket in 1819 only to be sunk by a whale, her crew set adrift and reduced to starvation and cannibalism.
The story fascinated 19th century America and caught the imagination of a struggling author — Herman Melville, who incorporated the Essex’s tragedy as the final climactic scene of his famed book, “Moby Dick.”
Growing up far from the ocean in suburban Chicago on a steady diet of sea tales and maritime history, Steve Klomps pored over the story, drawn in by the tale of adventure, disaster and survival against the odds.
Klomps didn’t become a sailor, but his career did eventually lead him to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, where he works as the museum’s director of finance, and to a riverfront home in Amesbury’s Pleasant Valley neighborhood. Transplanted to the fertile ground of coastal Massachusetts, Klomps’ youthful passion for maritime history has
blossomed into something verging on obsession. His research into local shipping history has taken him beyond the standard authoritative secondary texts and deep into original archives.
Among Klomps’ favorite topics is the shipbuilding history of the lower Merrimack Valley. While most histories of the area cite Newburyport as the local center for shipwrights, his research shows that before 1812, more ships were built on the north bank of the river in Amesbury.
“It was a huge industry — thousands of ships were built around here, and they ended up in all different corners of the world,” Klomps said.
Until last year, Klomps had no idea that the whaleship that had so captivated him in his youth also had an Amesbury connection. Last winter he received a letter from a man in North Carolina who wanted to build a model of the Essex and was looking for plans of the ship. The man believed that the Essex might have been built in the area and wondered if Klomps could help him.
“I had never heard of the Essex being built around here,” Klomps said. “When I started looking around, the first information I found was that it had been built down in Pembroke.”
Klomps kept digging, however, and soon found that to be wrong.
In the Newburyport Ship Register, he found the following entry: “Essex, ship, 238 tons; built Amesbury, 1799; length, 877 in.; breadth, 25 ft.; depth, 12 ft. 6 in. Reg. Oct. 11, 1799. William Bartlet, owner, George Jenkins, master.”
Of course, many ships in the area in those days were named the Essex, but the dimensions listed in the record matched those of the famous whaleboat. Still, Klomps knew from earlier research that William Bartlet, the owner, was a merchant, not a whaling tycoon. So he kept digging.
The next mention Klomps could find of the Essex put it in Nantucket under new ownership in 1804. It had been converted from a merchant vessel to a whaling ship. The Essex appeared repeatedly in the records of the Nantucket whaling fleet, under different captains and ownership, until its fateful departure in 1819.
There are no surviving plans for ships built in Amesbury during this period, but based on his knowledge of similar ships, Klomps was able to give the model-builder some guidelines of what the Essex must have looked like. In return, he had found another thread tying Amesbury to the complex web of global commerce in the 19th century.
“The thing I love about this research is you never know where it’s going to take you,” Klomps said. “It’s amazing that a town of 3,000 people could have been so industrious. Amesbury was the second-largest source of ships in the Boston registry during this time. There were more Amesbury-built ships in Salem than there were ships built in Salem. Amesbury shows up everywhere.”