Past Times

When Trouble came to the museum

Trouble the whale was quite a sight on the beach in 1928.
Trouble the whale was quite a sight on the beach in 1928. Barden Collection, State Archives of North Carolina

Originally posted March 16, 2012.

As the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ 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. ...

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. ...

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. ... It was later estimated that at least 50,000 people from a half dozen states 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.”

Tugboats were engaged to carry the carcass away.

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 tugboat 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. ...

Later in (September), 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. ... 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, Aug. 7, 1965

Trouble the whale became a symbol of the museum and later inspired the museum’s logo.