As the N.C. Museum of Natural Science's new Nature Research Center prepares for its grand opening, including an exhibit of Stumpy the whale
, we look back at an earlier museum whale, appropriately nicknamed Trouble. In 1965, The Raleigh Times recalled Trouble's history.
On an April morning in 1928, M. M. Riley Jr., an agent of the Clyde Line Steamship Co. and a year-round resident of the town of Wrightsville Beach, arose at an early hour and prepared for his daily before-breakfast walk along the shell-littered seashore of the island.
Stepping into the bright sunshine flooding his front porch, he stopped and gasped in amazement. Lying at the edge of the surf and practically in his front yard, was an enormous form not there the night before. Gathering his wits, he aroused his family, then hurried to the strand to see what manner of fish, animal or mammal the waves had cast ashore.
Upon closer inspection, Riley found the form to be a large sperm whale measuring 54 feet, 2 inches in length and 33 feet in girth.
The whale's massive tail was 14 feet wide and the lower jaw, 10 feet long, contained 46 teeth which fitted into sockets in its toothless upper jaw. Its estimated weight was 50 tons -- the largest sperm whale ever found in local waters.
Old records reveal that in 1733, whales along the Outer Banks were quite plentiful, and the seafaring folk made a good living from the sale of whale oil. These North Carolina whalers, however, worked themselves out of a job. The last whale killed was off the coast of Carteret County on April 3, 1898.
The people of Wilmington, nine miles from Wrightsville Beach, were the first to hear the news of the deep water giant. In a few hours, on the newly constructed causeway to Harbor Island, the cars were bumper to bumper. The electric railway of the Tide Water Power Co. was also doing a rush business, hauling passengers to the beach to view the mammal.
The private lawn, the flower garden, and even the front porch of the cottage of Mrs. Riley, on the northern end of the island, became "public property" as strangers tramped back and forth across her yard. All her pleas and her demands to disperse were ignored as the crowd milled about, seeking a better position from which to view the mammal. It was later estimated that at least 50,000 people from a half dozen stated visited the site.
The beach authorities had, in the meantime, offered the carcass of the whale to the State Museum of Natural History and Resources in Raleigh. They were advised the institution would accept the mammal, providing it was removed to Topsail Beach, 15 miles north of Wrightsville, an island which at that time was uninhabited.
By April 11, the crowds around the whale had thinned considerably, primarily because the carcass had been exposed to a broiling sun for six days. Dr. John H. Hamilton, the county health officer, threatened to "throw the book" at the Wrightsville Beach officials "if something isn't done immediately."
The Stone Towing Co., of Wilmington had secured the contract to remove the whale from the beach and a heavy tow line had been placed around the carcass. To lighten the load, museum officials had the long lower jaw removed and carried to a place of safety. Heavy seas, however, prevented the tug-boats from approaching the shore to pick up the line -- and the officials of the island continued to rant and rave.
Finally the seas abated and the tugs, Stone No. 6 and the "Southport," commanded by Captain C. E. Gause, of Southport, backed into the beach and latched onto the line. For an hour -- two hours -- the boats pulled and strained, from every angle, in a mighty effort to budge the creature. But, all their efforts were futile -- not an inch did it move.
The sucking sands held the long black form in a vise-like grip, and the tug-boats, defeated, retired from the field of operation.
The odor from 50 tons of putrefying blubber was, by now, overpowering, and in the Town Hall of Wrightsville Beach the cries of the officials became louder, and there was "much wailing and gnashing of teeth."
The largest single attraction Wrightsville Beach had ever possessed, the giant whale, had turned into a "white elephant."
On April 14, nine days after the leviathan came ashore, the two tugs returned to the scene, and aided by Capt. W. T. Willis of the Coast Guard Oak Island Station, the salvage crew began to tunnel beneath the carcass, after which they wrapped a heavy cable eight times around the mammal's body.
This accomplished, the line was attached to the tug-boats lying at anchor 1,500 feet offshore. After pulling at the immense bulk for more than an hour, the combined power of the boats finally rolled the whale from its bed of sand. From then on, each pull of the tug-boats rolled the mammal nearer the water and eventually into the sea, where it floated. Once the carcass was afloat, the rest was easy. The cable served as a tow line and the animal was hauled to Topsail Island where it was beached.
The staff and crew of the North Carolina State Museum then began stripping the blubber from the huge frame and thousand of screaming, mewing , circling gulls, as well as other shore birds, flocked to the feast.
Even in the stillness of the night, the work of cleansing the bones went on by "Mother Nature," as the shy and fragile, silver and cream ghost crabs tip-toed across the sands of Topsail Beach to dart in and out between the whitening bones of the largest species of animal that had ever lived in the sea or on earth.
It later developed that had it not been for H. H. Brimley, curator of the museum, and Harry T. Davis, present museum director, the rare specimen may have been lost to the State.
On April 14, the State Board had ordered the tug-boat captains to "tow the whale 25 miles out to sea and there set it adrift." The museum officials, however, got busy and had the orders changed to "tow the whale 20 miles up the coast and there set it adrift," which order was carried out.
It was at that time that the museum officials, in a gasoline launch, latched onto the huge carcass. but it was a tremendous body and the whale was soon drifting out to sea and the launch with it. But for the arrival of a Coast Guard Cutter that heeded the cries for help, the museum crew could have been in serious trouble. Even with the help of the Coast Guard cutter, it was five hours before the whale was finally grounded on a shoal at Topsail Beach.
In September 1928, Davis returned to Topsail Beach to determine if the buried bones of the whale had lost enough oil to permit their shipment to the State Museum. He announced at that time that it would be late fall before the mammal could be assembled for exhibition.
Later in the month residents of the towns through which the railroad tracks passed reported that the huge skeleton "came through on two flat cars of the train."
Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborne, an authority on museum exhibitions, stated that he now had a problem -- where to put the whale. "I have," he said, "only two places with space enough to place the skeleton, and neither of them are in the mammal room." He finally, however, solved the problem by suspending the 55 foot skeleton on the mezzanine floor near the exhibition of a finback whale. -- The Raleigh Times 8/7/1965
Trouble the whale became a symbol of the museum and later inspired the museum's logo. The New Hanover County Public Library has this great photo
of just how huge Trouble was!
UPDATE 4/23/2012: The North Carolina State Archives has uploaded a set of wonderful photos of Trouble the Whale. Check them out here