Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Of Devil Fish & Widow's Walks

Whenever I think of whaling, I envision "Widow's Walks" on tall Victorian manors, frigid blustery days, and the longing and romance associated with the captain returning from a voyage at sea to his New England home. Because of my romanticized view, it was with some fascination I discovered whaling took place in early San Diego. I quickly realized that life then was hard, messy, and often downright scary. 

"Widow's Walk" by Fletcher6 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
Widow's Walk
Gray whales migrate south and pass by San Diego in December and January. They winter in Baja California and then migrate north to Alaska, passing by San Diego in March, April and May.

Although shore whaling had been going on along the coastline for many years, no operations where located in San Diego's harbor until the Packard Whaling Company arrived in 1857. The Packard brothers, 40-year old twins from Massachusetts and hailing from a long line of Portuguese whalers, set up the try-works and small company shacks. Over the next 25 years other whaling companies came and went bringing Portuguese, Chinese, and Anglo-American workers.

The men used 28-foot open boats to chase after a whale, harpoon it, and then go for the scariest ride of their lives as the whale tried to shake them loose. The California Gray soon became known as the "Devil Fish" due to its intense fighting. When the whale gave up--evidenced by its last long exhalation and its blow-hole covered with clotted blood--the men would pull it back to Ballast Point and drag it ashore.

Breaching Gray Whale
There, they would cut off the chunks of blubber - a process called flensing - by slowly rolling the massive carcass with a winch. Using mincing tubs, mincing-knives, pikes, bailers, and other implements they would render out the oil at the try-works. A 150 gallon cast-iron cauldron called a try-pot was used to further extract the oil. Black oily smoke could be seen from San Diego and the stench was noticed for miles. The carcass was left on the beach, waiting for the tide to carry it back out to sea.

Oil from the whale was used as a lubricant in manufacturing and as a fuel for lamps and in soaps and creams. The bones were used in ladies corsets, bustles, umbrella ribs, jagging wheels for pastry decorating, and scrimshaw (Decorative carving of bones and ivory.) Spermaceti, a wax-like substance, was used in tanning leather and high quality candles. Baleen was used for buggy whips, carriage springs, fishing poles, ladies stays and frames for traveling bags. Ambergris was used for perfume.

The industry declined as the whales were decimated and petroleum took over with a newer, cheaper product. (Thank goodness because that saved the animals from extinction!) In 1870, the U.S. government ruled that Ballast Point was public land and military property which made way for the establishment of Fort Rosecrans. The whalers had to leave.

My newest book will be released in December 2015, A Familiar Stranger in Clear Springs. It takes place in La Playa after the whalers have left the area. The protagonist, Tom Barrington, is a soldier at Fort Rosecrans. It is available for pre-order. Here is a blurb ~

Back in the Officer's Arms...

Four years ago, Tom Barrington shared a connection with Elizabeth Morley that was like nothing he had ever experienced. But as a solitary soldier, he knew marriage was out of the question. 

So when he strolls back into her life, Elizabeth can't believe it. He once broke her heart, and now he's back--more irresistible than ever! And when the dangers of Tom's lifestyle catch up with him, the question remains: can he be the safe harbor she craves?

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  2. Whaling on the West coast. I'd heard rumblings, but you made the whole thing real. What a piece of history, and something I enjoy. The story also sounds very interesting. Looking forward to it. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines-Author

    1. Hi Doris
      It's tidbits of history that always get me contemplating a new story, or a new angle on a story. I don't think I could have handled living back then, however. Much to rough for me...Thanks for stopping by today!

    2. Great post, Kathryn. I love the photo of the whale. We sometimes forget how important whaling was to life back in earlier days before the use of petroleum products became prevalent. Even in the old
      West they used whale oil.

  3. Thank you for this informative post, Kathryn. I simply cannot imagine the occupation of whaling... and the terror (or perhaps thrill) it evoked in men, and their women waiting on shore. It's fascinating to learn about whaling near San Diego.