Past Times

The NC science museum’s whale tail tale

The whale that would come to be known as “Trouble” cause quite a sensation when it washed up on Wrightsville Beach in 1928.
The whale that would come to be known as “Trouble” cause quite a sensation when it washed up on Wrightsville Beach in 1928. Barden Collection, State Archives of North Carolina

In 1951, writer Herbert O’Keef retold the story of “Trouble,” the most recognizable exhibit in what is now the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum was celebrating its centennial year and boasted a “staff of five, including the janitor.”

One night in the spring of 1928, two men set out hurriedly in a rowboat from the shore of Topsail Island and headed into Topsail Sound.

The smaller of the two did the rowing, the larger having explained with relief that he knew nothing about boats. In fact, he added he never had even learned how to row a boat.

They were in a hurry because 30 feet of the tail section of a sperm whale was about to wash out to sea. The two in the boat were about the only people on the North Carolina coast who gave a whoop whether the whale’s tail section, or the entire whale for that matter, washed out to sea.

But, to them, especially the man doing the rowing, the situation presented right much of a crisis. They already had cut the flesh from the forward half of the whale, and had buried the bones on Topsail Island. If the unusually strong tide got the tail section, they’d wind up with just half a whale.

They reached the tail in time and managed to fasten a line to it. Finally, at 1 a.m., they managed to beach the section safely on Topsail. And, eventually, they finished cutting the flesh from that section and buried the bones, too.

The man who did know how to row a boat was Harry T. Davis, now director of the State Museum. As a result of his labors, the complete skeleton of the sperm whale now hangs in the Museum, the object of many ohs and ahs from the 200,000 or more persons who visit the Museum each year.

While wrestling with the whale, Davis was on what museum people call a collecting trip, gathering specimens.

They were especially anxious to get the sperm whale’s skeleton. The museum had none, and sperm whales aren’t the most common things in North Carolina waters then or now, especially sperm whales already dead and beached.

The whale originally had washed ashore on Wrightsville Beach, where it first created quite a stir and in a few days quite a stink. Beach authorities immediately offered it to the Museum, but stipulated that it must be hauled off the beach before Davis began his dissection.

The stipulation blocked acceptance of the offer. Money for museum purchases wasn’t plentiful – then or now – and the cost of hauling a whale off the beach would be considerable. …

Eventually the whale became such a problem that Beach authorities had to arrange to have a tug haul it off the beach. Davis looked on with dismay, but kept close watch on the proceedings. The tug took the whale north and several miles to sea, then cut it loose.

Davis heaved a sigh of relief when it washed inshore and stranded in Topsail Sound. He began work immediately. …

Davis’ sperm whale isn’t the biggest thing in the Museum. That honor goes to a much older whale skeleton.

That is the skeleton of a Right Whale, which was taken near Beaufort between 1874 and 1880, when there was a whale fishery at Beaufort and when hardy Tar Heel fishermen set out in rowboats to capture whales. …

Big as they are, the whales don’t hog the Museum’s spotlight. Davis believes that the center of interest for most visitors is the collection of live poisonous snakes. People, he says, just can’t help but look at those snakes. …

The Museum doesn’t attempt to keep many live specimens, limiting itself to the poisonous snakes and a few fish. Other live specimens not only are costly to maintain, they also would maintain a considerable odor in the museum.…

What is the Museum’s most valuable exhibit?

Davis found that one hard to answer. He finally decided to phrase it this way:

“The exhibit most difficult to replace would be the pair of passenger pigeons.”

Those birds, which once flew over North Carolina in the millions, are now extinct. The last known one died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. The N&O June 3, 1951

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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