Capt. Ellsworth West, Dead at 84, Last Vineyard Whaling Captain

Capt. Ellsworth Luce West, last of the Vineyard whaling captains, died at his home on the Middle Road, Chilmark, on Sunday nigh, following some months of failing health. He was in his 85th year and although feeble physically for some time, his faculties had remained active until his death. As an authority on the Arctic, his last days had been spent in the dictation of a volume on Arctic phenomena and his Alaskan experiences. He was also collaborating with Vilhjalmur Stefansson the explorer, in recreating in print various phrases of the whaling era.
Capt. West was born on a farm but a short distance from the spot where he died, the son of William and Abbie Luce West. After his brief school days spent in the ungraded public school of Chilmark, the youth engaged in fishing, and sailed on his first sperm whaling voyage as a youth, on the noted whaleship James Arnold. Following sperm whaling for some years, he eventually went into the Arctic Ocean after the bowhead whales, and becoming a master at an early age, was one of that intrepid group who submitted themselves to the experiment as to whether or not white men could exist through the rigors of the Arctic winter.

The Gold Strike in Nome

It was through his familiarity with the Arctic, the coastal waters and the natural resources of the country, that Captain West gave up whaling at about the time of the gold strike at Nome, in 1898, and purchasing the former Revenue Cutter Bear, he fitted out this ship for the handling of passengers and freight, sailing from Seattle, Wash., for Alaskan ports for a number of years. He took the miners and their supplies into Alaska, and thus established the first regular passenger and freight service to that territory.
In connection with this business, Captain West first charted the waters of the Inside Passage, so-called, on the Alaskan Coast, for the benefit of himself and other coasting masters, and also, through his knowledge of the country, and his vision of vast development, he opened the first coal mine in Alaska, with a view to supplying Nome with fuel.
He carried on these various lines of business until World War One broke out, when he volunteered his services to the federal government, leaving the Arctic to sail as master under the U.S. Shipping Board, and during the greater part of the war he sailed new ships on their test cruises, operating out of ports on the Gulf of Mexico. He also made several passages across the Atlantic during the latter part of the war and after its conclusion.
Because of his war-time occupation, he was unable to “prove-up” on his mineral claim in Alaska, and the coal mine, which had promised to be extremely valuable, reverted to the government, from which he was never able to obtain any redress.
Retiring to his farm on the Middle Road, he operated the place for a number of years, producing milk, and holding some minor town offices in Chilmark. He was in constant demand as a lecturer, and had spoken on his wide experiences before many audiences, both on the Island and mainland.
Captain West, an individual if there ever was one, had little sympathy with Melville’s white whale tale, in Moby Dick. He declared that there never was such a thing as a white whale. The captain was prominently mentioned as the logical successor to Capt. George Fred Tilton as the curator of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan but nothing came of it and the great days of the Morgan were soon ended anyhow, so far as New Bedford was concerned.


A Mason for Many Years

He was associated with the Methodist Church, and for many years had been a member of Martha’s Vineyard Lodge, A.F. and A.M. Surviving him are his widow, Mrs. Elsie West, and children as follows: Mrs. Edwin W. Nevin of Tewksbury; Robert and Albert West of Edgartown; Mrs. Walter Caldwell of Florida; Mrs. Lemuel F. Drake of West Tisbury; Mrs. Donald Light of Edgartown; a step-daughter, Mrs. Sherman Burnham; and ten grandchildren.
Private funeral services were conducted at the Hinckley and Renear Funeral Home, Vineyard Haven, on Wednesday, by Rev. James Gage, and interment was on the family lot in the Village Cemetery, Vineyard Haven.