“When Whales Made Kings” from Boston.com

newbedford__1246027626_8408 June 28, 2009, Boston.com and the Boston Globe, by Christopher Klein

NEW BEDFORD – Two days after the dawn of the new year in 1841, the whaler Acushnet tiptoed into frigid New Bedford Harbor, the first small steps on a lengthy voyage to the hunting grounds of the South Pacific. As the crew hoisted the newly christened vessel’s sails into the chill winter wind, they probably dreamed not only of warmer climes, but also of the great wealth that surrounded them in New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world. The city was among the richest in America, a commercial behemoth as massive as the leviathans its mariners harvested from the sea.

Among the names inscribed on the Acushnet’s crew list was that of a 21-year-old young man thirsty for adventure: Herman Melville. His voyage on the Acushnet served as inspiration for “Moby-Dick,’’ and the epic novel not only tells the salty tale of the elusive white whale, but also chronicles the prosperity of New Bedford at a time when whale oil and spermaceti candles powered the world.

“The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England,’’ Melville wrote in “Moby-Dick.’’ “Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.’’ While not on par with the lavish palaces built by today’s Russian oil barons and Middle Eastern sheiks, New Bed ford’s Yankee whalers constructed stately homes with their wealth and the Greek Revival mansion built by William Rotch Jr. was probably among those Melville recalled in that passage.

Rotch’s 28-room manse, now the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum, is the best-preserved example of New Bedford’s “brave houses and flowery gardens’’ that Melville described in “Moby-Dick.’’ The house, built in 1834 and part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, is named for the three families who lived under its roof over a span of 150 years.

Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum, 396 County St., New Bedford, 508-997-1401

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