Oil and Ice: A Story of Arctic Disaster and the Rise and Fall of America's Last Whaling Dynasty
Penguin Group US
, Oct 15, 2009
- 304 pages
In the summer of 1871, thirty-two whaling ships, carrying 12-year-old William Fish Williams, son of a whaling captain, and 1,218 other men, women, and children, were destroyed in an Arctic ice storm. In a rescue operation of unparalleled daring and heroism, not a single life was lost, but the impact on America's first oil industry was fateful and catastrophic.
The harvesting of whale oil, which grew from occasional beachcombing into a multi-million dollar industry, made New Bedford, Massachusetts, the wealthiest town in the world. Quaker brothers George and Matthew Howland, the town's leading whaling merchants, believed they were toiling in a pact with God. As whale oil lubricated the industrial revolution and turned New Bedford into the Saudi Arabia of its day, this belief only grew stronger. But as their whaleships pushed ever farther into uncharted seas in putsuit of a fast-diminishing resource, this oil business was overtaken by new paradigms. When the search for cheaper energy sources produced a new and apparently inexhaustible resource--petroleum oil--the Howlands and many others did not see the change coming, or the devastating effect it would have on an industry that has flourished for two centuries. Almost overnight, it seemed, the world changed. Business and financial institutions collapsed. The Howland brothers saw their fortune vanish and ended their lives as paupers.
For Willie Fish Williams, and the whalers and their families in the Arctic who watched as their floating community was crushed by the ice closing around them, that change came more swiftly.
Drawing on previously unpublished material, "Final Voyage" splices together two compelling narratives: the Howland brothers' unprecedented rise and sudden fall with the fortunes of America's first oil industry--which eerily prefigures today's modern economic collapse-- and a 12-year-old boy's vivid observation of a maritime disaster set against the world's harshest seascape.