In its glory days, Amagansett, a tiny village on the Long Island shore, had based its economy on whaling. Remnants of the once profitable trade still could be found in the shops and homes of its 300 or so residents; walrus tusks, rusting harpoons, and scrimshawed teeth from long departed sperm whales. Older residents, such as Captain Josh Edwards and his brother Gabe still told stories of battles fought with 100 ton beasts, of longboats caved in, of men dragged under the Arctic ice by a diving sperm whale, of long chases and narrow escapes. Overhunting had diminished the supply of sperm whales until it was no longer profitable to send the whaling boats out, and by 1885 Amagansett subsisted on the efforts of fisherman who sailed out into the Atlantic for the cod which would find their way onto the tables of homes and restaurants in New York City.
Captain Josh arose before daybreak on Saturday morning, December 12, 1885, and accompanied by his son began the cold walk to the beach. Cod fisherman such as Captain Josh used a dory, a 20 foot long boat which offered little protection from stormy seas or bitter cold, but was at least easy to pilot. As he strode up one of the sandhills that bordered the Amagansett beach, the Captain thought he spied another ship about a half mile off, which was curious. He knew everyone of the fisherman in the small village, and was sure none had beat him to the shore that day. “Here’s somebody that’s been spryer than us,” he complained to his son, “who do you suppose it can be?”
Then came a spout, and Captain Josh joyfully sang out words he hadn’t employed in many a year. “By gosh, thar she blows.” All thoughts of cod fishing forgotten, the Captain ran back to Amagansett and on the village flagpole ran up the town’s Weft, a tattered old flag that indicated a whale had been sited. Recruiting his brother Captain Gabe, Josh roused the villagers, and a tremendous bustle ensued as harpoons and lances were dug out of storage. Three boats of six men each shoved off, and it was a family affair. Captain Josh and Captain Gabe led the first, while relatives Jesse Edwards and Jonathan Edwards led the second and third boats respectively.
The whales, for soon it became apparent there were two, and already moved off to the southwest, and even the most experienced of the whalers knew there was slim chance at catching them. From the helm, Captain Josh encouraged the men to row harder, shouting with glee another “Thar she blows” whenever the whales broke the surface for a breathing spell. Breathing spells weren’t allowed for the men in the boats, and for hours they pulled at the oars, drawing ever closer to the beasts.
As they approached, it became clear that the two whales were exceptionally large prizes, a cow some 60 feet in length and a bull about 40 feet long. To Captain Gabe went the honor of the first throw, and from the bow he let the harpoon fly. Three feet of cold steel backed by ash buried itself up to the handle in the cow, and a shower of blood speckled spray covered the boats as both whales dove deep. Under orders from Captain Gabe the boat backed away as the rope attached to the harpoon was made fast.
As the whale dove, smoke rose from the rope as it played out through the ring on the boat’s front. Taking advantage of the whale’s dive, Gabe and Captain Josh traded places, and the other two boats came up. At last the whales again appeared, and were greeted with a shower of harpoons. Harpoons stuck from the whales’ bright shiny backs, but they made a game fight of it and their tails stove in the bows of two of the three boats. Again and again the harpoons flew, and both whales were soon hopelessly entangled in ropes that prevented them from diving. After two hours of fighting the cow’s spout showed blood, a sure sign she’d been hit in a vital spot, and a few minutes later she was dead. The bull too showed signs of exhaustion and the men took advantage of the slowed movement of its flukes to approach more boldly. Soon the bull too succumbed.
The battle over, the men discovered they’d drifted some ten miles from Amagansett, and binding the whales to the boats began a long strenuous row backwards, the carcasses trailing behind them. Sore, weary, but satisfied with a job done, the men dragged the whales on the beach and returned to their cottages. The next morning, they gathered round for the long bloody work of removing the blubber, whale oil and whalebone.
All together, the whales were worth around $1000 apiece ($250,000 each in 2010 dollars) for the poor village of Amagansett, and it came as a welcome early Christmas present for the town.