The City That Lit the World
By Karen Rubin
South Coast Massachusetts, as the region anchored by New Bedford, Fairhaven and Fall River is known, hardly seems to qualify as “off-the-beaten track”. After all, Highway 195 knifes through.
And yet it is too often bypassed by those speeding toward Cape Cod.
We have fallen into that category, getting only a brief glance at an intriguing sign “Whaling Museum” on a brick fire tower beside the highway as we dash to Cape Cod, each time promising myself to make time to stop and explore.
This time we made New Bedford and South Coast Massachusetts our destination, and were so richly rewarded.
This section of Bristol County is fascinating to explore. Charming and unpretentious, it is utterly captivating for the most avid academic historian as well as families wanting to inspire their children with first-hand experiences.
In the era when whale oil lit the world, New Bedford, the capital of whaling, was the “City that Lit the World.”
It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But in New Bedford, there is an odd comfort to the d�j� vu that comes from walking the cobblestone streets, visiting the Whaling Museum, and in the era when whale oil was the black gold of its day, touring the city that once was one of the wealthiest in the world.
The odd comfort comes from knowing what happens after whaling collapses. A mixture of ignorance and greed (greed mostly) caused the whales to be hunted nearly to extinction – making it harder and more expensive and more dangerous to obtain, not to mention literally killing the golden goose.
But this is also a morality tale of a finite resource with an infinitely expanding need. We can appreciate the inevitability that whaling would have to come to an end, because there simply were not enough whales to produce the oil needed to power an Industrial Revolution and the reality that some new technology would fill the gap.
One can only imagine the panic that went through New Bedford when they learned of Col. Edwin Drake drilling the first oil well in Titusville, PA, in 1859. Ironically, it seems, it was a local whaler, Weston Howland of Fairhaven, who is said to have discovered the process to refine petroleum.
History turned on the events that happened here and the lion-sized personalities who populated this place: Herman Melville who sailed from New Bedford onboard the whaler Acushnet in 1841, and a decade later published “Moby Dick” based on his experiences (it was panned during his lifetime and now is considered one of the greatest novels of American literature); Frederick Douglass, who was drawn to New Bedford’s whaling port because of the Quaker city’s egalitarian treatment of Blacks (the city became an important stop on the Underground Railroad and a center for the abolitionist movement); Robert E. Lee, before he became the General of the Confederate forces, was an engineer who worked on Fort Tabor; and perhaps the most incongruous out-sized figure of them all, Lizzie Borden, the O.J. Simpson of her day.
We come to learn about many other fascinating personalities, as well, during our visit here.
As we take our journey through history, though, the dominating theme seems to be marine – the overriding importance of the water and how it weaves together the culture, economy and social relationships. Whalers, sailing ships, fishing vessels, battleships, even the kayaks we take up the Westport River all weave together.
But clearly, New Bedford is most identified with the �poque when whale oil was that era’s “black gold” and New Bedford was the epicenter of the oil cartel.
New Bedford Whaling Museum
You can see the awe on the face of young children as they walk in to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, look up and become transfixed in wonder at the dinosaur-sized skeleton of a Blue whale, suspended from the ceiling.
“Whales have always had the power to draw a crowd, and inspire human imagination.” In the Middle Ages, whale ribs and scapulae were mounted in churches as symbols of the grandeur of creation, providing credibility of the existence of Jonah and the Whale, and by extension, the rest of the Biblical stories. Others saw in the whale bones proof that the world had been inhabited by a race of giants.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the largest museum in America devoted to the history of the American whaling industry and its greatest port. Through exhibits, publications, and programs, the Museum brings to life the whaling era and the history of the local area. It houses the most extensive collection of art, artifacts, and manuscripts pertaining to American whaling in the age of sail – late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, when sailing ships dominated merchant trade and whaling. The exhibits and videos and interactive displays are presented in ways to be enthralling for kids and adults, alike.
One room is devoted t understanding and appreciating the physiology and evolution of whales, and why they became so important to the economy.
For example, you learn that Sperm whales can dive more than 10,000 ft down – almost two miles; no other animal on earth can dive that deep and survive. This ability becomes even more significant as you learn about the “Nantucket sleigh ride” – what happens after the harpooner, hurling his weapon from a rowboat pulled alongside the giant, finds its target. That tiny harpoon stick certainly doesn’t kill the whale, but enraged and frightened, the whale tries to flee at speeds up to 30 mph, as the men in the boat, connected with 1800-feet of line, hold on for dear life. This epic struggle can go on for two hours, until the whale tires and can be struck again. The whale’s instinct is to speed away, but if it got the idea to go down below, the men would cut the rope with an axe, rather than be dragged into the deep to drown.
You get to climb aboard the Lagoda, the world’s largest ship model, that fills an entire room; see what 19th century life was like in the full-size replica of a whaleship crew’s quarters, and learn about whales through hands-on computer exhibits. When you can climb to a cutout of a ship’s fo’c's’le (forecastle – the forward part of the weather deck of a vessel) you half-expect to see the ocean waves in front of you.
Most affecting though, are the profiles, portraits, documents, ledgers, artifacts of the people connected with whaling that place in you inside the story.
Frederick Douglass, for example, who came to New Bedford to work in whaling in 1838. The whaling boats were mainly owned by Quakers who settled in New Bedford (having been thrown out of Plymouth by the Puritans). They were extremely tolerant and provided refuge as well as jobs for freed slaves and even runaway slaves, and significantly for that time, paid blacks the same wage as the rest.
In fact, the ships were incredibly diverse – South Sea Islanders, Wampanoag Indians, Portuguese from the Azores. In another example that there is nothing new under the sun, the owners of that time practiced “outsourcing” – going wherever they could hire crew at the lowest wage.
A film shot in 1922 – the very end of the whaling era – puts you in that scene of a whale hunt, and surrounded by the bones, the tools, the ships and other artifacts, makes it all so much more realistic and affecting. Just by touching the massive jaw bone, you get a better sense of the dimensions and the force involved.
You watch how a sailor scoops out the spermaceti from the “Junk” – the whale head cavity, which was used to make candles that were smokeless. That pour soul will wind up going into the cavity himself, to scoop out every remaining drop.
The ships were factories at sea – once the whale was secured to the side, the entire crew including the captain began the job of processing the blubber. The stench must have been excruciating.
You also realize how rare whales were – for an average voyage of three to four years, they might find fewer than 20 whales. The longest recorded voyage was 11 years.
There was so much empty time spent waiting and watching, the whalers became artisans of scrimshaw (which you see some of the finest examples), poets and journal writers – spawning a rich culture around whaling.
A superb 20-minute film runs on the half-hour puts whaling in New Bedford into historical context. It is extremely well done with reenactors and narrative.
Whaling transformed New Bedford into a boom town with 500 ships, 10,000 sailors, oil works, candle makers, blacksmiths, sail works. Countless languages could be heard spoken on the streets.
In the 1850s, New Bedford was one of the wealthiest cities in North America, with millionaire shipowners reigning over a global enterprise and building lavish homes and gardens.
But for many, signing on to a whaler was a job of last resort. For some, though, whaling meant freedom itself – ships became a refuge for fugitive slaves.
The film is interesting because it shows different perspectives – from the ship owner, the captain, the crew, and the wives left behind for months at a time, so they became independent managers.
New Bedford was a portal to the world, and whalers brought back elements from exotic cultures. But whaling also took Americans – and the American ideals – to places they had never been before (New Bedford Whaling Museum, 18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, MA 02740, 508-997-0046, www.whalingmuseum.org; $10/adults, $9 seniors, $9/ students, $76 6-14, tickets are valid for two consecutive days; open daily, 9-5, and until 9 p.m. Tuesdays in summer).
Especially as you walk the cobblestone streets of the 13-acre historic district, see the shops as they would have been, visit the Seamen’s Bethel and tour the harbor, it is easy to imagine it peopled as it was all those years ago.
The best place to start your visit of the historic district is at the modern (and extremely comfortable) Whaling National Park Historical Park Visitor Center. Housed in a building dating from 1853 that has served as a bank, courthouse, auto parts store, antiques market and bank again, it is located in the heart of the historic district. There are helpful maps, descriptive brochures, exhibits, a video, gift shop, and staff to help plan your day. You can take a free guided walking tour of the historic district with Park Rangers (offered seasonally). There are also 40 outdoor interpretive panels. Concerts and craft demonstrations are also scheduled (33 William St, New Bedford, www.nps.gov/nebe).
Among the important sites:
Seamen’s Bethel, where Herman Melville attended service before shipping out in January 1841, is across the narrow street from the Whaling Museum. A seaman’s chapel since 1832, Melville called it the Whalemen’s Bethel in Moby Dick, which he published in 1851. They still have his pew. The chapel still ministers to mariners, and on Memorial Day each year, they take the organ from the church to the pier by wheelbarrow, and ring a bell for every fisherman who has been lost at sea.
The Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, a 28-room Greek Revival mansion (which you see in an exhibit with a picture and portrait of the owners in the Whaling Museum), was built in 1834 and chronicles 150 years of economic, social and domestic life in New Bedford. It is New England’s only whaling mansion on its original grounds that is open to the public, and hosts house and garden tours, special exhibits and special events (396 County ST., 508-997-1401, www.rjdmuseum.org; open daily).
The oldest continuously operating U.S. Custom House still stands at the corner of William and North Second streets. Other sites include the Sundial Building, the Mariners’ Home, Rodman Candleworks, the Double Bank Building, and the Bourne Counting House.
Many sites within the historic district are also associated with the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement – largely because of the connection to whaling and maritime trade. The industry was the most lucrative at the time, the maritime trades had historically been more welcoming to black participation, the ships traded in southern ports and the West Indies, which turned out to be helpful for stowing away runaways, and perhaps, most significantly, was New Bedford’s “liberal spirit.” This was largely because Quakers who controlled the city’s political and economic life, had taken an early and active stand against oppression. You can even see the building where the young Frederick Douglass and his new wife came to enlist the help of Nathan and Mary Johnson, black abolitionists (The Visitor Center offers an outstanding brochure and map.)
As whaling declined as an industry, New Bedford became a center for textile manufacture (Wamsutta has since closed its factory), and fishing. It remains a major fishing center – nationally protected, in fact – and for the past 8 years has been the #1 fishing fleet in the U.S. in the dollar-value of the catch.
After lunch on the historic harbor at the newly opened Waterfront Grille, we get to see first-hand New Bedford’s maritime heritage and its proud fishing fleet from the aptly named Acushnet, a small boat that offers a 70-minute Harbor Tour.
From the water level, the view of New Bedford’s harbor is even more thrilling, as we take our place amid a veritable parade of sailboats and fishing boats and all manner of marine vessel. Capt. John Curley offers engaging commentary as he weaves in and around the colorful fishing fleet and shipyards of New Bedford and Fairhaven, towards Palmer’s Island Lighthouse where we hear the harrowing story of the 1938 Hurricane that drowned lighthouse keeper Arthur A. Small’s wife, and of the 1954 hurricane.
Because of those tragic events, a three-mile long Hurricane Barrier was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1965 stone by stone to a height of 20-feet above sea level, and is the largest stone structure on the East Coast. Our small boat passes through, and we see the massive hinge that would shut the barrier in the event of a hurricane.
He tells us of another figure, Joshua Slocum of Fairhaven, who is another victim of changing technology and economics. With steam power signaling the end of the age of sail, Captain Slocum faced yet another challenge-the loss of his livelihood. But then, in March 1892, a friend offered him a ship if he would come to Fairhaven. What he found was an antiquated 36-foot, 9-inch sloop named The Spray. He fixed it up and became the first to sail around the world solo. Slocum’s historic voyage began in Boston on April 24, 1895, and officially ended more than 46,000 miles later at Newport, Rhode Island, on June 27, 1898, but unofficially, on July 3, 1898, when Slocum sailed up Buzzards Bay back to Poverty Point, Fairhaven, where today there is the Capt. Joshua Slocum Monument.
Slocum wrote of his adventures and harrowing experiences – of being attacked by pirates, cannibals, headhunters, surviving hurricanes and almost being rammed at sea by big ships – in his book, “Sailing Around the World Alone”.
Looking back at New Bedford from the Acushnet, it is not hard to imagine the 1880s.
The Harbor Tour, operated by Whaling City Expeditions, leaves from Pier 3 and the Waterfront Visitor Center, housed in the Old Auction House, a National Historic Site that explains fishing industry in New Bedford, and very interestingly, the operations of the Old Auction House (suffice to say, pushing and shoving were part of the process). (Harbor Tours, noon, 2 & 4, weather permitting, 508-984-4979,www.whalingcityexpeditions.com; parking at the pier).
To get the full flavor of the harbor, enjoy lunch or dinner at the newly opened Waterfront Grille, and have a waterfront view while savoring fresh seafood specialties.
With the sea being such a dominant force in New Bedford – from a basis for the economy to an appreciation of the ecology – it is not surprising that a brand new attraction just getting underway is the Ocean Explorium at New Bedford Seaport. Though still under construction, people are invited in on Saturdays (admission is free). Currently, it is offering activities geared to children and adults on Saturdays including engaging learning opportunities and interactions with living marine creatures. A special tour of the amazing “Sphere” is offered on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Union Square, 174 Union Street, New Bedford, Massachusetts 02741,www.oceanexplorium.org)).
New Bedford – even the historic district – is a living city, not a living-history museum. You will find 200-year old buildings outfitted with fiber optics and housing bustling art studios. “We honor our past, but definitely live in the present.”
New Bedford is also fascinating for its ethnic heritage – largely a legacy of its whaling. The weekend we visit happens to be the 94th Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, one of the oldest ethnic festivals in America, and the largest Portuguese festivals in America, attracting some 150,000 to 200,000 people over a four-day period, culminating with one of the largest parades in the state. The Feast is so old, it is a yearly ritual for generations of family reunions. In fact, I am informed by the Feast organizers, many of whom are descendants of the first feast committee, that this event has sole special permission from US Customs and the Regional Government of Madeira to import the famed Madeira Port they serve directly in its original casks, rather than bottles. But it’s really all about regular people celebrating life and their common European and American heritage. Folks from all over North America, the Azores, Madeira and Portugal come in for it. A novelty is to purchase chunks of meat and cook them yourself on tall skewers over a skewer pit (www.portuguesefeast.com).
There are many places to stay in New Bedford, but to really enhance the experience of exploring South Coast Massachusetts, a bed-and-breakfast puts you right in the neighborhood.
There are several to choose from, including the Briar Rose Bed and Breakfast in Fairhaven, which we thoroughly enjoyed. In New Bedford, the Orchard Street Manor, was formerly a whaling captain’s home; the owner, a world traveler, lives in the carriage house, so if you stay, you have the run of the manor (139 Orchard St., New Bedford, MA 508-984-3475).
For information about lodging and attractions contact the Southeastern Massachusetts Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-288-6263, www.bristol-county.org.
Friday, 12 September, 2008
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