“The real Whaling City: New Bedford makes a great day trip into the maritime past – and present”
By Anne Wallace Allen Originally published on 10/4/2009 at TheDay.com
Walk the cobblestone streets and imagine the days when the whale oil industry supported banks, mansions, and small businesses.For 35 years, between 1825 and 1860, New Bedford, Mass., a city of around 100,000 on Buzzards Bay, was the busiest whaling port in the world. And when the whaling industry declined, towns like New Bedford didn’t go away. They adapted to other uses of the sea. New Bedford became one of the busiest shipping ports in the country.
Now, with its blocks and blocks of original 19th-century buildings still intact, it’s a good place to visit with your family, and a perfect destination for autumn.
To take stock of New Bedford, start with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where the specialized tools used to kill the whales at sea are presented in absorbing displays. The museum – the world’s largest, according to whaling scholars – also pays tribute to the huge creatures with three whale skeletons and a model of a North Atlantic right whale.
Whaling was dangerous, it was extraordinary, and it was cruel – to the whales, and to the seamen who shipped out to parts unknown, sometimes for years at a time. The whaling museum doesn’t hide from that. One exhibit tells visitors that 37,000 whales were killed in 1934 alone.
”If you were a whaleman, that’s how you earned your living,” said Michael Dyer, the museum’s maritime historian.
Dyer noted that most maritime cultures have hunted whales. Museum exhibits document whaling 1,000 years ago by Vikings, Eskimos, and others. “It’s not unique to the American experience by any stretch of the imagination,” said Dyer.
The museum, on Johnny Cake Hill, lies inside the 13-block New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, which offers free tours in the summer months of the many historic attractions nearby.
One popular stop: the Seamen’s Bethel, http://portsociety.org/2009/seamens-bethel, a place of worship that has been open to mariners since 1832. Nearby is the nation’s oldest continuously operating custom house, an 1836 Greek Revival structure where seafarers and captains do the paperwork of their trade: http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/maritime/usc.htm.
Suitable for young kids is the brand-new Ocean Explorium, a modestly proportioned aquarium, museum and science center that opened in a former bank building in July. The Explorium, http://www.oceanexplorium.org, has six aquatic exhibits, including coral, scallops, sea horses, and a hypnotic jellyfish tank with a strangely soothing effect on footsore adults.
A few blocks down the brick sidewalks take you to New Bedford’s waterfront, where the 1894 schooner Ernestina is often in port. Just as interesting for visitors who don’t often visit a coast is the busy commercial wharf next door where hundreds of fishing boats come and go each year.
New Bedford’s centuries-old banks and mansions tell the story of a town that made its living from the sea. During the whaling years, thousands of ships sailed out to oceans around the world, returning with valuable oil for use in candles, soap, and lighthouse lanterns.
The city also produced and attracted nationally known artists such as Herman Melville, author of “Moby-Dick,” and supported sea-related businesses such as chandleries, sailmakers, and coopers.
Another famous 19th century resident was Frederick Douglass, an orator and abolitionist who traveled to New Bedford through the Underground Railroad and stayed there between 1838 and 1841, working as a caulker on the whaling ships. He preached at Zion Methodist Church.
At New Bedford’s peak in 1857, 105 ships returned over 1 million pounds of whalebone and 200,000 barrels of sperm and whale oil. The next busiest port was New London, Conn., where 24 vessels returned that year, said Dyer.
The whaling boom started to decline with the rise of the petroleum industry, and by the 1850s, the investors started diversifying into other industries, such as textiles. Whaling all but disappeared from Massachusetts by 1915.
But with its deep water, New Bedford still claims to be the busiest fishing port in the United States, in terms of its catch value, according to Jessica Fernandes, the deputy director of the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission. About 500 commercial fishing vessels are in port at New Bedford at any given time, she said.
Away from the sea is the shady Buttonwood Park Zoo, http://bpzoo.org/, which has a mini-train to ride and a host of animal exhibits, from a pair of Asian elephants to some heirloom goats. Zookeepers are commonly on hand to talk about the animals.
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