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Whalemen’s natural history observations and the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World

Seaman Dean C. Wright drew this profile view of a sperm whale in his journal kept onboard the ship Benjamin Rush of Warren, Rhode Island, 1841-1845. KWM #A-145

Seaman Dean C. Wright drew this profile view of a sperm whale in his journal kept onboard the ship Benjamin Rush of Warren, Rhode Island, 1841-1845. KWM #A-145

Apart from the specific species that they were targeting during the hunt, whalemen were generally poor observers of wildlife. Sperm whales, right whales, bowhead whales, their habits, habitats and general appearance were commonly understood at a commercial level but only a few whalemen made any attempt to systematically identify other species of whales or small cetacea. Blackfish (Globicephala melas, the long-finned pilot whale) are an exception as these were also frequently hunted and whalemen had the opportunity to observe both their behavior and anatomy closely.

Third mate Warren D. Maxfirld drew these views of a pilot whale and a rightwhale dolphin in his journal kept onboard the bark Chili of New Bedford, 1856-1860. KWM #49

Third mate Warren D. Maxfirld drew these views of a pilot whale and a rightwhale dolphin in his journal kept onboard the bark Chili of New Bedford, 1856-1860. KWM #49

At the very least whalers were inconsistent in whatever observations they may have made.[1] This is not to say that whalemen didn’t see an astonishing array of the world’s species, just that their interests were almost wholly commercial and only rarely systematic. The whales, birds and other cetaceans illustrated and described in Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World are no exception. Obviously, frequent mentions are made in seamen’s logbooks and journals noting a wide variety of birds, fish and whales but seldom are these animals illustrated, and even more rarely are they either named or described in any useful way. Vernacular, seemingly random, and completely unsystematic terms are commonly employed to which none but a whaler can relate.

Scene described as "brig in a school of porpoises," from Purrington & Russell's Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848.

Scene described as “brig in a school of porpoises,” from Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848.

Detail of unidentified small cetaceans from the Panorama.

Detail of unidentified small cetaceans from the Panorama.

For instance, this particular scene in the Panorama is described in the handbill text as “brig in a school of porpoises.” By no stretch of the modern imagination could the animals painted in this scene be described as “porpoises,” yet whalemen commonly applied the term to any number of small cetaceans. Modern descriptions of the porpoises (Phocoenidae) describe them as small, blunt-headed and coastal; “preferring to keep to themselves, porpoises are typically shy creatures and rarely perform the acrobatic feats of dolphins.”[2] The only species of porpoise common to the Cape Verde archipelago is the harbor porpoise, (Phocoena phocoean) a small, blunt-nosed creature. However, even with their pointed snouts, a hint of a dorsal fin, a large aggregation and fairly acrobatic portrayal of behavior, one would be hard-pressed to say what exactly Purrington and Russell intended these animals to be.

Edwin N. Clark, first mate onboard the bark Two Brothers of New Bedford drew this view of two "algerines" in the logbook of the voyage, 1856. ODHS #572

Edwin N. Clark, first mate onboard the bark Two Brothers of New Bedford drew this view of two “algerines” in the logbook of the voyage, 1856. Apart from their generally pointed snouts, the only other prominent anatomical feature is the dorsal fin, a feature common to many dolphin species. ODHS #572

They are obviously some type of cetacea, probably of the dolphin tribe, possibly of the sort called “algerines,” or “algerine porpoises” by the whalemen. The animals in the picture also greatly resemble members of the beaked whale tribe of the sort sometimes called the “grampus” by whalers. The region where this scene took place was in the North Atlantic Ocean off the Cape Verde Islands. These waters are home to a wide variety of oceanic dolphins (Delphinidae) however current habitat projection maps do not suggest that any species of beaked whales (Ziphiidea) live in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands. Recent observations (2010, 2014) have placed small groups of at least two species of beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) and Gervais’ beaked whale (Mesoplodon cf. europaeus) around the waters off Cape Verde, but these are confirmed as rarities.[3] Dolphins are another matter. Bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, spotted dolphins, striped dolphins and spinner dolphins all live in these waters, are socially gregarious and acrobatic in their behavior. That, combined with the use of the whaler’s term “porpoise” suggests that these animals are probably dolphins.

Seaman Thomas White onboard the bark Sunbeam of New Bedford, 1856, drew these views of whalemen harpooning dolphins from a large school swimming about the ship. Whalemen ate dolphins and would capture them at every opportunity. KWM #436

Seaman Thomas White onboard the bark Sunbeam of New Bedford, 1856, drew these views of whalemen harpooning dolphins from a large school swimming about the ship. Whalemen ate dolphins and would capture them at every opportunity. Like other whalers, White calls them “porpoises.” These particular animals are about the size of a man and are obviously frolicking in the water in a large, social school. KWM #436

One solid advantage to the relational usage of the term “porpoise” is that most whalemen used the term to describe the multitudes of dolphins encountered in large schools on the high seas. Further, as beaked whales seldom congregate in social schools gamboling about in the waves, the likelihood is very strong that Purrington and Russell accurately described the behavior of a school of dolphins.

Probably the best single synopsis of whalemen’s vernacular language describing the various whales and small cetaceans encountered is from Moby-Dick. A selection of these can be read in Chapter 32, “Cetology, ” with the following caveats:

  1. There was at the time of its writing considerable inconsistency in the naming of cetacean species and popular language swapped around between actual species as far as Linnaean nomenclature could identify them and mariner’s usage.
  2. Melville as a whaleman himself adopted whalemen’s usage.
  3. Melville was mocking the books of science written by persons with no firsthand knowledge of what it was they were describing.

He writes in the first part of that chapter: “of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty.” He then goes on the arrange his classifications and subdivisions similarly to the table of contents of Robert Hamilton’s “On the Ordinary Ceacea, or Whales,” in William Jardine’s Naturalists Library, as well as John Hunter’s “Observations on the structure and œconomy of whales” in Philosophical Transactions of London (June 28, 1787); that is Roman numeral, genus, species. Being the satirist that he was though, instead of even attempting to sound “scientific,” Melville makes up these foolish categories of whale species compared to the sizes of books, presumably representing the varieties in size of the very books he consulted, hinting that books are the sole source of knowledge of cetacean, and that whalemen, while seeing most of the animals in question could not properly identify most of them. Dolphins and porpoises are not distinguished and just because Melville calls it a porpoise does not mean that it is one. Numerous whaling references, including early 20th century photographs identify dolphins as porpoises and we know that whalers lowered for dolphins as well as harpooned them from the bows of the ship for food.

Seaman John Martin drew this superb view of a Rightwhale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronei), what he calls a "Right Whale Porpoise" in his journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, 1841-1845. KWM #434

Seaman John Martin drew this superb view of a Rightwhale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronii), what he calls a “Right Whale Porpoise” in his journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, 1841-1845. KWM #434

Sulphur bottom – Undoubtedly Balænoptera musculus (Blue whale) as verified in Charles M. Scammon’s Marine mammals of the Northwestern coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874)  and Hershkovitz, Catalog of Living Whales (Washington, 1966). The “Great Northern Rorqual” of Jardine/Hamilton (PH 5190-A) is derived from the two 1827 prints of the blue whale that stranded at Ostend, Belgium  which was in large measure copied in 1832 for another print.

Killer/Thrasher – Undoubtedly Orcinus orca. In the text of Jardine/Hamilton under the entry for “The Grampus” is the following: “Finally it is the fish which the Americans have long been in the habit of denominating the killer or thrasher, from its reputed pugnacious and cruel disposition.”

Seaman Joseph Bogart Hersey drew this view of a killer whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Samuel & Thomas of Provincetown, 1846-1848. KWM #364

Seaman Joseph Bogart Hersey drew this fine view of a killer whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Samuel & Thomas of Provincetown, 1846-1848. KWM #364

As this entry mentioning “thrasher” serves as the only reference that I have ever seen (including logbook and journal references to killers) I suspect that Melville either legitimately heard this phrase used in the fishery or, what is more likely, borrowed it from Jardine/Hamilton. Please note that Melville separates “killers” from “grampus.” What was meant by the whalemen’s term of “grampus” is difficult to determine. Sometimes in the whalemen’s writings it seems to refer to the killer or orca, other times, the killer is distinct and the grampus is also distinct. Jardine/Hamilton’s illustration of “The Grampus” is obviously an orca. Grampus griseus or Risso’s Dolphin is the only official appearance of the term grampus. The only actual illustration of the grampus of whalemen’s parlance is from KWM #1033, a journal kept by seaman Daniel C. Whitfield onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, 1856-1859. It is obviously a beaked whale of some kind.

Seaman Daniel C. Whitfield wrote exemplary and rare descriptions of a number of whale species. Almost uniquely, Whitfield drew and defined the creature known to whalemen as the "Grampus." It is an almost perfect outline of Cuvier's beaked whale. This species has the widest known distribution of any beaked whale.

Seaman Daniel C. Whitfield wrote exemplary and rare descriptions of a number of whale species in his journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, 1853-1855. Almost uniquely, Whitfield drew and defined the creature known to whalemen as the “Grampus.” It is a near-perfect outline of Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). This species has the widest known distribution of any beaked whale, and if the grampus was actually the beaked whale, as Whitfield suggests, then whaling logbooks and journals can provide valuable information about the distribution and common sightings of these pelagic animals. While the Dr. Franklin cruised primarily in the Atlantic Ocean, Whitfield describes a number of species from his experiences on other whales in other oceans. KWM #1033.

Huzza porpoise – Probably Lagenorhynchus obliquidens of Scammon, the striped or common porpoise. Scammon’s text description coincides well with Melville’s the difference being that Melville claims that they are found “almost all over the globe,” whereas this particular animal is a Pacific species. Apart from that the striped dolphin or common dolphin is the most likely candidate being gregarious and global.

Algerine porpoise – Completely unidentifiable. Whaling logbooks and journals frequently mention them although they are seldom illustrated (ODHS#572, September 22, 1859). Chances are good that they are one of the many species of larger dolphins, such as Tursiops truncatus, the bottle nose dolphin.

Mealy-mouthed porpoise – Undoubtedly the Southern right whale dolphin, Lissodelphis peronii .

While the bulk of American whalemen did not record their observations of sea creatures, some did. Those few who did actually identify species in a useful fashion have contributed some important clues to understanding the prolific life of the oceans. Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama was intended to be educational entertainment, but for all that, it serves today as an important document serving to offer insights into the world as witnessed by American mariners. Whether or not the artists captured the true nature of marine life, they absolutely captured the significance of the American whalemen to the growing understanding of the world and its seas in the 19th century.

[1] Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (Edinburgh, 1839); William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions (Edinburgh, 1820); Charles Melville Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874) are notable exceptions. These books, written by whalemen are all superb natural history texts, illustrated accurately with a wide variety of species and other documentary pictures. The average whalemen produced nothing even remotely as insightful as these.

[2] Mark Carwardine, Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (New York and London, 1995).

[3] Hazevoet, Monteiro, et al. “Recent data on whales and dolphins (Mammalia: Cetacea) from the Cape Verde Islands, including records of four taxa new to the archipelago,” Zoologia Caboverdiana 1 (2) 2010: 75-99

The Mystery of the New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company Models

D. Jordan Berson, collections manager, with the partially assembled New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company models. Photo: Arthur Motta.

D. Jordan Berson, collections manager, with the partially assembled New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company models. Photo: Arthur Motta.

As the community debate continues about whether a casino should (or should not) be built on New Bedford’s waterfront, the old New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company (NBG&ELC) buildings  stand at the heart of the latest proposed reuse of the site. Also known as the Cannon Street Power Station, the last redevelopment effort, launched in 1997, desired to transform it into a “world-class” aquarium. Turbine Hall, the 1917 monumental structure at the center of the site, once again figures prominently as an architectural centerpiece in the early conceptual drawings of a proposed casino complex.

The proposed New Bedford Aquarium, model, ca. 1998 (Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.)

The proposed New Bedford Aquarium, model, ca. 1998 (Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.)

I will not elaborate on the remarkable history and importance of the company, the building or its many additions constructed over the decades in order to deliver power to the region. It has been well documented by research historian Peggi Medeiros, for its nomination in 2002 as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places (an effort led by the Waterfront Historic Area League and its former executive director, Tony Sousa). Peggi also recently reviewed the site’s history in the Standard-Times in light of the casino proposed by KG Urban Enterprises.

Instead, my focus is to ask the public’s help in solving a mystery regarding a very unusual group of large wooden models of the old NBG&ELC complex, rediscovered recently in the Whaling Museum’s collections.

Now, you may be wondering: How does the Whaling Museum not know about these objects? The answer is: We do know a little about them, but not the maker or makers, when and where they were made and for what purpose. With more than 750,000 objects in the Museum’s collections, the curatorial staff continues its unending quest to preserve and interpret it all, and on rare occasion, is presented with mysteries such as this one, which any latter-day Sherlock Holmes would relish solving.

Some of the original exhibit labels remain attached to models. Photo: Arthur Motta

Some of the original exhibit labels remain attached to models. Photo: Arthur Motta

What we do know is that it was part of an exhibit by NBG&ELC at the New Bedford Armory for the City of New Bedford’s Centennial celebrations of 1947, and thus, it may be the only extant display of the New Bedford Centennial Industrial Exposition, which touted the city’s major business concerns. The model includes several hand-lettered labels explaining the functions of the buildings.

Portion of the Centennial feature in the Standard-Times, July 4, 1947.  Photo: Arthur Motta

Portion of the Centennial feature in the Standard-Times, July 4, 1947. Photo: Arthur Motta

Under the headline “Thousands Visit Centennial Industrial Exhibit at Armory,” a two-page feature article in the New Bedford Standard-Times remarked only briefly how “Miniature old and new plants, gas tanks and a model freighter were combined to make the novel display of the New Bedford Gas and Edison Light Company” (July 4, 1947). Despite its many photos, the feature article did not include one of the exhibit.  So it may be that the models were fabricated expressly for the exposition, however, this has not been confirmed with research to-date.

The models came to light relatively recently, when reallocation of all storage space was necessitated in advance of construction of the new Wattles Jacobs Education Center. Stored deep in the recesses of Johnny Cake Hill’s labyrinth of storage rooms, the models’ presence predate the living memory of the longest-serving staff member, Barry Jesse, who recalls it being in the attic in 1971. Even Eversource spokesperson, Michael Durand and Dana P. Howland, a former director of the company – both men with the longest institutional memories of the utility around – didn’t know of the models’ existence.

D. Jordan Bernson, collections manager, with the NBG&ELC models. The large metal tank model weighs approx. 50 lbs. (photo: Arthur Motta)

D. Jordan Berson, collections manager, with some the NBG&ELC models. The large metal tank model weighs approx. 50 lbs. (photo: Arthur Motta)

Recently, collections manager D. Jordan Berson and me committed to laying out the sprawling 24 models to see what we could see. It required more floor space than we had anticipated. Constructed of fir plywood, metal and wire, the models are of an undetermined scale, perhaps a quarter inch to a foot. The largest, Turbine Hall, is about 6 feet in length. Several of the models will require careful repair if the entirety is ever to be exhibited again. Indeed, Dr. Christina Connett and her curatorial staff debated the models’ inclusion in the recently opened exhibition, Energy and Enterprise; Industry and the City of New Bedford. However, without its full history, the models were deferred for perhaps a future project and the “Energy” narrative of the current show was related through other objects and images from the collection.

New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company complex, 1897.

New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company, 1897.

Using among several references an aerial photograph of the NBG&ELC complex reproduced in the Centennial “Official Souvenir Book” of 1947, we managed an approximate assembly of the plant, sans the missing freighter model aforementioned in the newspaper account. Mr. Berson indulged my request that he be photographed with the models in order to relate scale, although upon inspection of the photos his presence in them recalls for me some distant Christmas morning scene with a Lionel train set!

New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company,  New Bedford Standard-Times, 1924.

New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company, New Bedford Standard-Times, 1924.

The insides of the models are hollow; no internal details were meant to show. Only the exteriors are treated; all ofwhich are painstakingly hand-painted to include dozens of mullioned windows, entablatures, smokestacks, chimneys and vents.  It should be noted here that actual interior of NBG&ELC’s Turbine Hall is amazing, designed by the renowned engineering firm Webster & Stone – designers of the MIT dome in the same year – Turbine Hall’s interior looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel, with its colossal steel girders, massive bolts and riveted crossbeams. Only one of  four soaring smokestacks still stands at the site. The aquarium designers of 18 years ago took full advantage of these imposing elements, and it is hoped, any new project will, too.

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

So please contact me about what you may know of the origin of the NBG&ELC models. My email address is:

Perhaps a late, great uncle built it upon retirement. Or a great grandfather worked in a carpentry shop that was hired by the company to build a miniature of the power plant at a scale sufficiently large enough to create an impressive display in the Armory’s sweeping Drill Hall.

Many of the smaller models in the group have metal eyelets screwed in along their bases, it is assumed, in order to fasten each building to a very large base-board, probably painted to delineate the plant’s grounds and also to hold them in position. Unfortunately, the base is missing. To add to the puzzle, some of the models look like structures from an earlier era in the company’s history, as can be inferred from an 1897 illustration of the complex. Could it be that the models as originally exhibited were intended to show the company throughout its history?

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

Also, without the base we could not surmise the location of the mysterious so-called Lake Trinidad, noted in historical accounts of the site. As the Standard-Times reported “In 1924, a looming coal strike inspired the installation of an oil-gas generator. This inspiration had drawbacks – the oil-gas generator suffered from a bad case of by-products. The set yielded tremendous quantities of tar and lampblack. The tar was finally run off into a large puddle where it grew to be 3 feet deep and won the name of “Lake Trinidad!”” (Oct. 29, 1950) This was a mocking reference to one of the world’s largest natural asphalt lakes.

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

Turbine Hall, ca. 1997 (photo: Cambridge Seven Associates)

In closing, we need to learn more about the models and hope someone may know something about their creation. They represent a considerable slice of history for an always-strategic site on New Bedford’s central working waterfront – first, as a simple landing place for the native Wampanoag and then the earliest European explorers; then settlers; then colonial burying ground; then wharves and piers; then iron foundry; then illuminating gas manufactory, then electric lighting company; then New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company; then a wholly-owned subsidiary of New England Gas & Electric Association; then CommElectric; then NSTAR; then a proposed aquarium; now Eversource; and perhaps, a future casino.

Former New Bedford Cannon Street Power Station, 2015 (photo: Arthur Motta)

Former New Bedford Cannon Street Power Station, 2015 (photo: Arthur Motta)


Ellis, Leonard Bolles. History of New Bedford and its vicinity, 1602-1892, Syracuse, N.Y: D. Mason & Co., 1892.

KG Urban Enterprises

New Bedford Free Public Library (newspaper microfiche collections)

New Bedford Semi-Centennial and Industrial Exposition Official Souvenir, Providence, R.I.: Journal of Commerce Company, publishers. 1897.

Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.

New Bedford’s Holy Acre: ethnic prejudice in the textile era

The upper part of Holy Acre, Turners Court, south side looking east from Acushnet Avenue, 1907. (1981.61.408)

The upper part of Holy Acre, Turners Court, south side looking east from Acushnet Avenue, 1907. (1981.61.408)

“Holy Acre” was the unofficial name for a small section of New Bedford, Massachusetts, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, a time when the city was rapidly transitioning from a whaling port to a textile and manufacturing center.  A working class neighborhood of immigrants, Holy Acre, was located south of Wamsutta Mills, east of the rail yards spanning east to the water’s edge of the upper harbor. Acushnet Avenue marked its western border; Wamsutta and Pearl Streets its northern and southern borders respectively; the tidal marshes of the near upper harbor its eastern border. It included “Turner’s Court,” a dead-end street east of the avenue.  At the turn of the 20th century, a new embankment constructed to elevate the railroad – stretching south from the trestle bridge over the intersection of Wamsutta Street and Acushnet Avenue – formed Holy Acre’s eastern edge.

Atlas of 1911 shows the area known as Holy Acre isolated by the rail yards and tidal lands.

Atlas of 1911 shows the area known as Holy Acre isolated by the rail yards and tidal lands.

Who coined the name of Holy Acre remains undiscovered. The New Bedford Standard-Times noted  “the surmise is that it was so named by some member of the Police Department in an earlier era when it was known as an unsavory neighborhood.”[1] Located literally on the wrong side of the tracks this area was constantly enshrouded by the heavy smoke of locomotives borne by the prevalent southwesterly winds. Several murders are purported to have been committed there, however, only two such crimes, in 1901 and in 1908 are cited in the same newspaper account.

Another theory for the moniker may be that it was a sardonic reference to the holy city of Acre, located in the Levant of old Syria, today part of northern Israel. Located north of the larger city of Haifa, the ancient section of Acre today remains surrounded by the sea on three sides and fortified by massive walls, which date to the Crusades, the site of many battles for its control. The allusion to an impenetrable enclave set apart from a larger community and located against the sea is made in a 1914 article titled “Holy Acre an Alien Walled Town Set Down Within the Limits of New Bedford,”[2] in which the local newspaper noted its denizens hailed “from Portugal, Syria, Turkey, Italy and men of the Jewish faith live here.”

The south side of Holy Acre, Pearl Street & Acushnet Avenue, 1908. (1981.61.221)

The south side of Holy Acre, Pearl Street & Acushnet Avenue, 1908. (1981.61.221)

Holy Acre was by the 1890s widely recognized as a settlement of Italian immigrants; however, the 1914 article also claims the neighborhood was originally built by Irish immigrants. “They made the town. From them, it came to be called Holy Acre and was known as a little emerald isle amid a population of nationalities.” In any case, the area was considered by New Bedford’s Anglo establishment an unsavory and dangerous section of town, “which has long been a menace to the health of this community.”[3] Not only in New Bedford but throughout the textile and manufacturing towns of the Northeast, mounting anti-immigrant sentiment was fueled by competition for mill jobs. Growing competition from southern mills and increased pressure to reduce wages and increase productivity were set amid an influx of immigrants seeking the promise of American prosperity.

Under the headline “Italian Colony – Numbers about 300 in New Bedford – Few Women in Holy Acre – Successful Italians Who Have Established Themselves in Business,” a 1909 Sunday Standard newspaper article (despite the latter half of the title), goes to considerable length to disparage the community. “In the work of excavating for the new mills, a large amount of unskilled labor is required, and such work is adequately supplied by the Italians who work with pick and shovel…. Education has been aptly called the gloomiest chapter of Italian social history; a chapter full of painful advance, of national indifference to a primary need and of a present backwardness that give to Italy, (next to Portugal), the sad primacy of illiteracy in western Europe.”[4] Almost as an obligatory to the headline, the article notes in closing two Italian grocers, a dentist of the second generation and an Italian-American policeman – whose beat was Holy Acre, as examples of success in the community. The article is remarkable in its prejudice, ignoring such national figures as Marconi, who six years earlier achieved the first U.S. transatlantic wireless transmission at nearby Wellfleet, Massachusetts and was a topic of the national press.

A view of Holy Acre's immediate neighborhood: the rail yards. The Holy Acre is just out of the picture to the right. 1994.39.20

A view of Holy Acre’s immediate neighborhood: the rail yards. Holy Acre is just out of the picture to the right. 1994.39.20

The threat of epidemics from foreigners arriving in port was a constant concern of the authorities, which included a quarantine officer whose job was the inspection of vessels before disembarkation was allowed. In 1893, the Evening Standard under the headline “Holy Acre to be Purged” detailed the Board of Health’s condemning of buildings “deemed unfit for habitation by the authorities.” The newspaper listed the owners and occupants’ names of the six houses condemned, out of approximately 40 structures in the neighborhood. The surnames were of a wide variety of origins rather than representing a majority group. Noting “Holy Acre had long been a menace to the health of the community” and “already known as one of the worst localities in the city,” the writer continued: “…as the land is below tidewater it is surprising that the unfortunate people who are obliged to occupy the buildings in this court have not long ago succumbed to contagious diseases more terrible than those which afflict children. It has been a regular breeding pen for diphtheria and kindred ailments, and during the smallpox outbreak many people in the community entertained fears that this disease would develop in this closely tenanted hamlet… water has been known to remain in the cellars of some of the houses nearly the whole year, and the yard next to the corner building presents a most sickening spectacle.”

The Police Department in its annual report to the municipal government kept detailed records of the ethnicity of those arrested under “Country of Origin.” Numerous articles appeared in New Bedford papers, which focused on the ethnicity of various sections and neighborhoods in the city. In 1914, the annual report of the Chief of Police listed 38 countries under its “Nativity of Prisoners” files. Three murders were committed that year out of 4,042 offences listed for 103 categories of crimes, which ranged from “Breaking and Entering” (69) to “Night Walking” (20), in a long list of wrongdoings which included Stubbornness, Injury to a Shade Tree, and Stealing a Trolley Ride. The largest number of arrests was for Drunkenness (2,426). The reports do not list the locations of offenses, and Holy Acre does not appear as a reference in any of them from 1880 to 1918.

Holy Acre is referenced in the Board of Health’s 1893 annual report as it related to drainage issues and the outbreak of typhoid fever across the city that year, however, a map of confirmed cases indicated only one case in that neighborhood.

City of New Bedford Board of Health Annual Report 1893.

City of New Bedford Board of Health Annual Report 1893.

Disease, contagion and risk to public health rather than violent crime appear to be more the general concern about Holy Acre. The Board of Health was established in New Bedford in 1878 under a new Act of the Commonwealth. Health concerns included stemming plague and disease from immigrant-laden vessels, implementing quarantines and investigating outbreaks of illness among mill operatives. Almost immediately, their annual reports document the work of licensing cesspools and extending sewers to the river’s edge. The “lagoon” south of Wamsutta Mills in the vicinity of “Turner’s Court also known as Holy Acre” is noted in reports dealing with the health risks of the generally filthy conditions in this area due to inadequate drainage, unlicensed cesspools and the need for sewer extensions.

"The house of the organ grinders" at Pearl Street & Acushnet Avenue on the Holy Acre, 1914. (1981.61.215)

“The house of the organ grinders” at Pearl Street & Acushnet Avenue on the Holy Acre, 1914. (1981.61.215)

Before its development this area consisted of tidal marshland and the 1883 report lamented that there was not in existence a city regulation restricting building or moving structures onto low land due to the unsanitary living conditions they created.

The lagoon was ultimately filled, which created new land east of the railroad corridor. The houses of Holy Acre as well as several shops and manufactories including a paint factory were demolished over the years into the 1940s. Addendums to the 1923 Sanborn Atlas of the city reveals the disappearance of all but a few structures along the streets of Holy Acre: Turner’s Court, Wall, Pope, Seneca and Peal Streets east of Acushnet Avenue.

The 1909 newspaper article concludes an ultimate solution for Holy Acre: its occupants’ migration to the interior of the country (the Ozarks, for example). “What the future has in store for Holy Acre and for the Italians of New Bedford is difficult to say. Whether or not the movement, now so prevalent in America, toward sending immigrants out to develop the rural districts will include such Italians as live in New Bedford and incidentally most effectually benefit their condition, is a problem which time alone can solve.”

Nearly a 150 years later, the irony is that New Bedford’s  Holy Acre did not entirely disappear, insomuch as its maligned reputation – earned or unearned – remains: a vestige of cultural weathering[5]  in the minds of some citizens. Contemporary Google Map® images overlaid with the 1911 Atlas reveal the current footprint of the former Holy Acre. Now the site of rubber recycling, supply and trucking companies, it remains an isolated district of the city, as hardworking, and perhaps for some few, as off-putting as it was formerly. Today, its high viability along the Route 18 Connector, which brings traffic from Interstate 195 into the downtown, has earned it the ire of urban planners and those who would promote a best first impression of the city to visitors. As for a solution to Holy Acre’s modern-day looks, it may be one that “time alone can solve.”



[1] New Bedford Standard-Times, December 2, 1951, p.16.

[2] New Bedford Sunday Standard, March 1, 1914, p. 12.

[3] New Bedford Evening Standard, April 14, 1893.

[4] New Bedford Sunday Standard, November 7, 1909

[5] Heath, Kingston W. The Patina of Place University of Tennessee Press, 2001. P.xix

100 Years Ago Today: Johnny Cake Hill readies for a grand museum edifice

Johnny Cake Hill ca. 1900 (NBWM #2000.100.80.1)

Johnny Cake Hill ca. 1900 (NBWM #2000.100.80.1)

On a windswept March 13th, 1915 a group of men stood on the crest of Johnny Cake Hill, their backs to the Seamen’s Bethel. Their gaze was directed at two aged and weather-beaten wood frame houses directly across the street. The weather did not interfere with the task at hand: to clear the way for a grand museum edifice planned for the site.

A gift to the Old Dartmouth Historical Society from Miss Emily H. Bourne, the new museum building would greatly expand the Society’s existing galleries, which fronted on Water Street. It would be built to honor the memory of Emily’s father, Jonathan Bourne, Jr.; his name to be prominently carved into the frieze above an imposing front entrance, which would rise on this spot within a year’s time.

#12 and #14 Bethel Street (photo: New Bedford Sunday Standard, March 14, 1915)

#12 and #14 Bethel Street (photo: New Bedford Sunday Standard, March 14, 1915)

With the land beneath the structures already under control of the project, the task on this day was the dispensation of the buildings. In classic Yankee fashion, the public auction to sell the houses quickly commenced with the mandate that they be removed or dismantled in a requisite time. Auctioneer Fred W. Greene, Jr. called out the bidders’ offers for #12 and #14 Bethel Street; the former a well-worn shingled half-Cape style house with a bracketed awning over its front door, the latter a shabby full-Cape with nine windows placed symmetrically to its centered door serviced by a sloping porch and staircase.

Detail of  Bethel Street block, New Bedford City Atlas, 1911

Detail of Bethel Street block, New Bedford City Atlas, 1911

The 1911 New Bedford Atlas lists the owner of the #12 Bethel as Juliet A.M. Barney, and #14 as Henry E. Woodward. Boarders of many backgrounds and nationalities were typical in these tightly settled neighborhoods of the oldest part of town. The 1911 City Directory lists a few for these addresses: John Francis, laborer; Charles Williams, teamster; Manuel Lopez, seamen; Joseph Teixeira, mill hand; Mrs. Julia M Teixeira, widow.

News of the auction in the March 15 New Bedford Sunday Standard did not include information about former owners or occupants or what became of them; only that the sales were executed with dispatch and for short money. “The houses numbered 12 and 14 Bethel Street were sold to Zephir Quintin for a total sum of $79, the house on the south (#12) bringing $41 and the one to the north $35.” The Standard noted that the new owner had just ten days to remove them before excavation of the site would begin.


Interest seems to have been tepid, perhaps due to the time constriction. “The bidding started at $10, then made a jump to $20, to $25, and by small jumps to $35.  The next jump was to $37.50. Dollar bids brought the price up to $41, the selling price. The bidding on the other house was much the same, with the price starting at $20.” The reporter concluded “While the houses were very old, the lumber in them was not valuable, and the price paid, considering that the structures are to be removed was a fair one.”

The larger building had a history, which was noted by Old Dartmouth Historical Society members present for the sale. “Particular interest was manifest in the larger building. Henry B. Worth, who attended the sale, said that a picture in the possession of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society showed the Friends’ Academy standing at right angles to the street, while the building now standing on the site is parallel to the street. That the school was swing around into that position is very probable, said Mr. Worth.”

With the houses at the crest gone, excavation began and swift progress on the new building continued uninterrupted until its dedication in November 1916. An additional house immediately south of the new museum would also be removed eventually, its footprint now the upper lot adjacent the south face of the Bourne Building. This area is destined to become the upper courtyard entrance of the new Wattles Jacobs Education Center, scheduled to open in fall 2015.


100 years ago today: Jonathan Bourne Whaling Museum building project begins, 1915


William Wallace Crapo

It was the letter William W. Crapo (1830-1926) had been waiting for. The aging lawyer, former congressman and first president of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, had been anticipating some official word from his old acquaintance and client, Emily Howland Bourne (1835-1922) about her intent toward the building of a massive museum edifice, which would be like no other in the world.

Copy of Emily Bourne's January 4, 1915 letter.

Emily Bourne’s Jan. 4, 1915 letter.

On January 4, 1915, Miss Bourne finally penned a letter that confirmed she would build a soaring church-like structure atop Johnny Cake Hill adjacent to the Society’s gallery of whaling artifacts located down the hill in a former bank on North Water Street. Moreover, it would be purpose-built to receive the world’s largest ship model, whose main royal truck would rise to 50 feet from the floor/waterline to nearly touch the apex of the museum’s barrel-vaulted ceilings. She would build it as a memorial to her beloved father, Jonathan Bourne, one of New Bedford’s most successful whaling agents.

Emily H. Bourne

Emily H. Bourne

She wrote to Crapo, “I have held back in making this known to you by my hope that I might persuade my friend, Mr. Henry Vaughn (an Englishman) of Boston, to undertake the work.”

Henry Vaughn (1845-1917) was a distinguished architect of prominent churches in the northeast United States. He was one of the architects of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, collaborated on Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., and Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut.

Vaughn planned an elaborate Georgian Revival exterior; within it would include open and balustraded upper galleries to survey the ship from three quarters of the compass, supported by colonnades of the Doric Order, which would give the entire space the reverential air of a Romanesque church. The half-scale model of the whale ship, LAGODA, dramatically enshrined at the center.


Jonathan Bourne Whaling Museum under construction, Nov. 1915. Note the west-facing palladium windows of the ODHS museum bldg. on North Water (now the Docents Room) in the lower left of the photograph.

The entire project was more than Crapo and the fledgling society could have hoped for. In scale and grandeur it surpassed all expectations; it was what one might more likely expect to see presented as a national pavilion at a world exposition, than as a building addition to a newly formed museum operated by a regional historical society. Creating a dramatic and memorable spectacle was quite deliberate. Emily noted in her letter that the “old traditions, and activities of the city should be perpetuated, and put in a form to be easily recognized by its future inhabitants…” There was no denying that the magnificence of new building transcended language and would be easily understood by all groups and all ages.

The work soon commenced and the building rose swiftly in 1915, with enclosure before the end of the year. Immediately, the LAGODA began to take shape within the great hall, like a gigantic ship in a bottle, under the supervision of Edgar B. Hammond, who had taken measurements for it from the CHARLES W. MORGAN.

As inscribed above the main entrance on Johnny Cake Hill, the Jonathan Bourne Whaling Museum was dedicated November 22, 1916. Nearly a century later, it never fails to inspire awe upon entering the space.

For more on Emily Bourne and her munificent gift: Old Dartmouth Historical Society Sketch #44



New Bedford’s window on the World Series, 1915-1929

The Standard-Times Baseball Player Window, 1929 World Series, during which an estimated 4,000 fans cramped City Hall Square as far north as Elm Street, to gaze at Ashley’s magical contraption.

The Standard-Times Baseball Player Window, 1929 World Series, during which an estimated 4,000 fans crammed City Hall Square as far north as Elm Street, to gaze at Ashley’s magical contraption. (photo:S-T)

The 1915 World Series was the start of a tradition for New Bedford baseball fans. It was the year they “watched” the game in City Hall Square, and as the Series continued, the crowds grew into the thousands.

Transfixed, they gazed up at the second story window of the New Bedford Standard-Times Building. Above the Market Street entrance was a large white panel that spanned three windows. Upon this was mounted a metal panel in the center with a 3-foot diagram of a baseball diamond on which disks representing players moved as if by magic.

Like the Whaling Museum’s famed 1848 Grand Panorama of A Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World and other pre-cinematic devices such as ‘magic lantern’ shows and cyclorama pavilions, the Standard-Times “Baseball Player Window” was a contraption invented to give the sense that spectators were experiencing an event firsthand, in this case, they were in the stands watching the biggest contest of America’s favorite pastime. Live broadcasting was yet a thing of the future.

The former Standard-Times Building today. The Baseball window is above the Market Street entrance.

The former Standard-Times Building today. The Baseball window is above the Market Street entrance. (photo: Arthur Motta)

Here’s how it worked: ongoing telegraph messages on the progress of the game streamed into the Standard’s newsroom and were raced to the back of the Window. There the Window’s operators used electromagnets to move players around the diamond on the outside of the building. The magnets were affixed to scissor-arms which extended or collapsed in order to hold the players (represented by metal disks) to the field.

The players moved as telegraph reports came off the wire, to the ‘oohs and aahs’ of the crowd on the square. On either side of, and below the diamond, racks accessible from the rear allowed the operators to include players’ names as well as “balls and strikes, runs and outs, on the front of the board.”

Diagram of the exterior of the Baseball Player Window.

Diagram of the exterior of the Baseball Player Window. (U.S. Patent Office)

The Window was the invention of New York native, entrepreneur, baseball fan, William G. Ashley. It was first used during the 1915 World Series in which the Boston Red Sox played the Philadelphia Phillies, winning 4 games to 1. Ashley had little trouble convincing George Reynolds, then the S-T’s Circulation Manager (and avid baseball fan) that the newspaper’s building was the perfect setting for the Window. The growing crowds beneath it convinced Ashley to patent his invention, while Reynolds provided capital and promoted the effort.

Ashley's patent for the Baseball Player Window, "a Game-exhibiting device,: 1917

Ashley’s patent for the Baseball Player Window, “a Game-exhibiting device”, 1917 (U.S. Patent Office)

Ashley filed for a U.S. Patent for a “Game-Exhibiting Device” on November 17, 1915. By 1917 they were in business as the Standard Ball Player Corporation. They sold hundreds of boards over the next decade and also manufactured a cricket board, but as the 1920’s wore on, live radio broadcasts spelled the end of line.

Ashley continued to invent electrical components for the automobile industry and also was proprietor of the Ashley Storage Battery Company on Purchase Street.

As for Reynolds, he became a successful printer, “Reynolds the Printer.” The Reynolds Printing Company at William and Second Streets, produced many small books, pamphlets and brochures on New Bedford history in collaboration with the Old Dartmouth Historical Society and its Whaling Museum.

New Bedford Armory History

The Building of the New Bedford Armory, 1898-1904

by Arthur P. Motta, Jr.

In chess, the rook is shaped like a castle and is a potent player on the board.  Moved in conjunction with the king, the rook executes a unique defensive maneuver called castling, the only time in which two pieces may be moved in one turn. Skilled players have used castling to facilitate the balance of offensive and defensive advantages. Indeed, the lengthy dispute about where to build the New Bedford Armory resembled a chess game, the city grid its chessboard, with Mayor Charles S. Ashley and Armory Commissioner George Howland Cox, the well matched players.
From the start, the armory project was contentious and the intense debate it generated illustrates the tidal influences of politics and the press on public policy and urban design. Ashley and Cox’s very public chess match ultimately ended after many compromises but in a clear win for the Mayor. He celebrated that victory just as publicly on May 5, 1904 along with thousands of citizens attending perhaps the grandest dedication of a public building in city history. The armory remains one of New Bedford’s largest and most elaborate public buildings.

City leaders initiate the armory project
In 1898, Lieutenant G. N. Gardiner, a member of the Common Council argued that the city should take its place among the leading urban centers of America and build a proper armory for the local militia, the New Bedford City Guards. His call came as unrest among mill operatives was growing over an impending 10 percent pay cut announced by several textile mill owners. A large strike took place early in that year, which succeeded in shutting down the mills for a time – a prelude to the devastating Strike of 1928. Although the 1898 strike eventually collapsed in the spring, it was not before violence and vandalism required Mayor Ashley to call on the Guards, local and state police to provide protection for the mills. It was clear then that if the situation spiraled out of control city forces could be overwhelmed by the mill operatives, which numbered more than 10,000 in 1898.
Established in 1852, the New Bedford City Guards were then headquartered in Mechanics’ Hall (now site of the Duff Building) at City Hall Square. The Guards became part of E Battery, 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery in 1898. Councillor Gardiner, a member of E Battery, continued to advocate for an armory for three years. With the support of Mayor Ashley, Gardiner put forward a motion to provide the money necessary to begin the work. On July 18, 1901, the City Council designated $125,000 in the amount of a loan in order to acquire land and build an armory. The loan was executed under the provision of the Commonwealth’s Acts of 1888, which dealt with the establishment of state armories. The Evening Standard detailed the financing:

“After the city has designated the sum of money it is willing to spend on an armory, the state issues 30 year bonds for this amount. The city must pay not only the interest on these bonds, but also the sinking fund; in other words, the cost of the armory and land falls wholly on the city. The armory is under the control of the state authorities; the state is not required to pay rent for the occupancy of it, but does stand the expense of the care, furnishing and repairs. – Editor of Standard.” (Feb. 15, 1902).

Armory site, design, and price tag generates controversy

Mayor Chas. S. Ashley

Mayor Chas. S. Ashley

Several sites around the city were considered and debate about which location would be the best was an ongoing topic in the press. From the start, Mayor Ashley was unwavering in his choice for the armory site: Sycamore and Pleasant Streets. Ashley wanted to see the center of the city expand north, just as the burgeoning city was expanding northward. He envisioned an opportunity to aggrandize the skyline with the turrets and towers of a great castle high on the hill. Passengers alighting from trains at Pearl Street Station would behold an urban horizon resplendent with a multitude of church spires, lofty mansions and fine public buildings. To this end, Ashley wanted New Bedford’s armory to be the envy of all others in the state, both in size and splendor. Indeed, the massive project required additional infusions of cash by the city. On June 26, 1902, the Council voted on additional $38,000, and again on January 14, 1904 another $15,000, making the total amount $178,000.

 This 1895 map shows the future armory's location in relation to Wamsutta Mills and the Pearl Street Station, with reconnaissance views of the downtown & harbor.

This 1895 map shows the future armory’s location in relation to Wamsutta Mills and the Pearl Street Station, with reconnaissance views of the downtown & harbor.

Pursuant to the Act of 1888, all existing and proposed armories came under the jurisdiction of the State Armory Commission. Nine armories had been built under the Act, and New Bedford was to be the tenth. At the time, the Commission consisted of three members appointed by the governor: Mr. Joseph N. Peterson (of Salem) was Chairman; Adjutant General Samuel Dalton (of Boston), and General Josiah Pickett (of Worcester). Governor W. Murray Crane, a Republican, appointed an additional member, George Howland Cox of Cambridge in 1902.

Geo. Howland Cox

Geo. Howland Cox

Long the chairman of the Cambridge Park Board, Cox came to New Bedford with definite views about where to locate the armory to best effect. His interest in New Bedford went deeper than the other commissioners. Born in Fairhaven in 1854, his mother was Mercy Nye Howland. Cox married Ella P. Wittermore in New Bedford in 1877. Cox attended West Point, and though he did not graduate, his military demeanor never ceased. An engineer for 27 years with the Calumet & Hecla Mining Co., based in Boston, Cox transitioned to finance, becoming president of the Cambridge Trust Company, where he was known to stand in the center of the bank lobby and bellow orders at clerks and customers alike. His disregard for Mayor Ashley’s ideas and authority immediately generated tensions that the press eagerly reported. Under the headline, “Armory Site Becoming a Political Issue,” the Boston Globe reported, “Mr. Cox, the friends of Mayor Ashley say, arrived with some preconceived ideas concerning the Mayor. One was, they say, a belief on the part of Mr. Cox that the mayor represents the people, but not the heaviest taxpayers. Mr. Cox, they say, has taken his suggestions from the mayor’s opponents.” (February 16, 1902). This was a reference to Cox’s first choice for the location of the armory: the foot of William Street, which included the Double

The Double Bank Building, foot of William Street

The Double Bank Building, foot of William Street (photo: Arthur Motta)

Bank Building and the entire block between Rodman and Hamilton Streets, running east to the water’s edge The Double Bank Building still stands today as the former Fishermen’s Pension Trust, now J.J. Best Banc. & Company. The Double Bank’s directors and abutters (Geo. F. Barrett and the Knowles estate) sent a petition urging the selection of this site. Their asking price was the limit allowed for the purchase of land for the project: $20,000. In 1902, the Water Street commercial district was showing its age. Other financial houses were moving up the hill. The New Bedford Institution for Savings had vacated 33 William Street for its gleaming new temple at Union and Purchase a few years earlier. The directors were part of the old establishment and they resented the Mayor’s opposition to their desire for a profitable exit. Critics of the Mayor suggested that his advocacy of Sycamore & Pleasant was personally motivated as it was in his neighborhood; Ashley’s residence at 91 State Street was just a block west of the site he wanted for the armory.

The Mayor’s location satisfied another aim: deterrence. The armory’s main tower would overlook the city’s largest mill, Wamsutta. Thousands of mill operatives coming and going each day from the Wamsutta Street gates would look up at the hillside fortress and be reminded of the power of the state.

Contemporary view from the Armory tower looking northeast to Wamsutta Mills (photo: Arthur Motta 2007)

Looking northeast to Wamsutta Mills from the main tower. (photo: Arthur Motta, 2007)

It did not go unnoticed at City Hall that Cox’s ties to Beacon Hill helped garner him the armory commission appointment and provided him with a stipend to be paid from the city’s armory budget. Cox’s ties were again evident when the commission chose Olin W. Cutter, a Boston architect to design the armory. Cutter had recently designed the Registry of Deeds and Probate Court at East Cambridge (1897), the Middlesex County Courthouse at Lowell (1899), and supervised the building of Boston’s Irvington Street Armory.

A grand fortress for the city is advocated
Undaunted, Mayor Ashley pursued the architect, providing ideas for a grand edifice at Sycamore and Pleasant. Thus, Cutter’s initial design called for an elaborate fortress featuring double turrets and multiple elements of medieval architecture, including bartizans, crenellated battlements and macholated towers. Indeed, the New Bedford armory had all the features similar to castles such as the Chateau de Pierrefonds in France.

The New Bedford Armory's original plan by Olin Cutter

The New Bedford Armory’s original plan by Olin Cutter

On the design, The New Bedford Mercury reported that the armory “will be one of the handsomest in the state; one much more attractive in appearance than the Fall River armory, which has commanded no little praise. …The plan calls for a building of stone with rock-faced finish, the walls being crowned with battlements and surrounded by graceful conical-roofed towers. The general effect is that of a castle in feudal times.” (Feb. 6, 1902). Pleased with his labor, Cutter commented that the Sycamore & Pleasant site would be “capable of better treatment, architecturally.”

But the ornate design gained little appreciation from the Boston-based Armory Commission. Many in New Bedford suspected the Commission’s lack of enthusiasm was borne of a desire that the capitol city’s armories not be bested. While reviewing Cutter’s ornate plan, Adjutant General Dalton quipped to the press, “What would happen the first time a mob got a piece of artillery or fired a piece of railroad iron up on the roof… An armory is intended to be a practical structure, for use in time of trouble, just as the militia companies are.” (Feb. 11, 1902).  In response, the Evening Standard editorialized:

““One can but feel a touch of regret at Adjutant General Dalton’s unappreciative question, “What are those things on top of that building?” referring to the ornate plan of an armory which has had some publicity in New Bedford, and his curt remark that “if military requirements have anything to do with this plan, they will have to go.”  What was wanted was a triumph of architecture; not less, but more. If the architect failed in his drawing anywhere, he failed in luxuriance. Adjutant General Dalton may not know it, but an armory is wanted as an ornament to the city…” (February 13, 1902)

The editorial neglected to consider Dalton’s lengthy military career, which began before the Civil War with the 14th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and later with the 1st Regiment, Heavy Artillery. Dalton’s mob-scenario stemmed from his knowledge of the murderous draft riots of 1863 in New York and Boston, during which armed mobs attacked the armories in both those cities in revolt over President Lincoln’s Enrollment Act in March of that year. Indeed, the Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886 fueled national fears of class warfare and advanced efforts to erect armories in all the major cities.

Mayor Ashley's site required an unusual perpendicular plan

Mayor Ashley’s site required an unusual perpendicular plan

Cox supported Dalton’s remarks, pointing out that the Mayor’s site (two lots perpendicular to each other), would require the massive drill shed be built perpendicular to the castle structure, called the Head House. Standard armory plans called for the drill shed to be parallel and directly behind the head house. Mayor Ashley countered that Sycamore and Pleasant (known as the Humphrey-Mason lots) could be had for $5000 less than the Double Bank Building site. Not to be put off, Cox argued, “I believe when it comes to contracting for a building, it will be found that the value of the stone in the two big stone buildings [will be] perfectly adaptable for head house walls, [and] will more than offset the difference in the cost of the lots. If the city will throw out those two sidewalks adjoining the lot, it will be amply large for an armory.” (Eve. Standard, Feb. 12, 1902). The mayor seized upon Cox’s admission that the sidewalks would have to go and immediately contacted the Standard to expose the flaw. In the paper’s editorial column the next day, it blasted Cox’s ideas as “absurd” and chided the out-of-towner for his presumptuous attitude in attempting to redesign New Bedford’s downtown: “Mr. Cox assumes too much when he incorporates in his scheme a library or a High School at ‘the other end of the vista.’ …Finally the city authorities will never, we trust, narrow the streets by discontinuing the sidewalks on either side of the lot.”

An alternative armory design for the bridge site

An alternative armory design for the bridge site

Cox was not deterred. He continued to argue that an armory at the foot of William would be the logical site for an armory that was to be larger than most as not only E Battery, but also Naval Company G would occupy it, and its adjacency to the water would be an important asset. Indeed, a massive building was being planned to accommodate four companies, but the paper’s admonishment and public opinion forced Cox to concede. When the Armory Commission presented its final report on potential sites to Governor Crane on February 26, 1902, it bowed to public opinion and dropped the William Street site. But Cox announced that his second choice was yet another waterfront location, called the Bridge Site, at the western end of the New Bedford/Fairhaven Bridge.

Local detractors dubbed Cox’s new choice the Ark Lane Site, for its proximity to an old lane which ran east from Second Street to the water, so named for the Ark, a derelict whaleship which in the early days of whaling had become a particularly infamous house of ill repute, and was finally burned by the townspeople in 1829. Cox instructed Cutter to draw up an armory plan for this site, which would address all the concerns expressed by Dalton regarding the Mayor’s plan.

The 'Parker's Block' site adjacent the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge

The ‘Parker’s Block’ site adjacent the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge

The bridge site, also known as Parkers Block, consisted of serveral private owners, including the city, where the Water Works Department kept a work shed and pipe stockpile. To make the site a more attractive alternative to the mayor’s site, Cox proposed creating a park along the south side of the armory to serve as verdent entrance to the city at the New Bedford Fairhaven Bridge. Using the Mayor’s strategy, Cox provided the new proposal to the press. The new plan showed the head house facing west on Second Street with the drill shed behind it reaching east to Water Street and a park spanning south to Middle Street.

The new armory plan’s more modern treatment discarded much of the medieval ornament of the mayor’s vision. It also took some inspiration from the Worcester Armory, no doubt to attract the vote of Commissioner General Pickett of that city. But Pickett was less concerned with the myriad details, so long as A. J. Bishop Company of Worcester and Providence was in the running to be the contractor. Bishop built Pickett’s armory in 1895.

Other locations were also being discussed. They included the Brownell & Ashley lot (Acushnet Ave., Spring & Fourth Streets), the McCullough lot (Acushnet Ave., Maxfield & Purchase), the First Street site (First & Spring Streets), and the Eliot Estate lot (between Court and Union).

The Bridge Site was discarded but Bridge Park became a reality

The Bridge Site was discarded but Bridge Park became a reality

Throughout the controversial debate, Mayor Ashley remained steadfast in his advocacy for the Sycamore & Pleasant Street site and was ultimately victorious. The Boston Herald wrote “This will make another attractive public building for New Bedford, and will redound to the credit of Mayor Ashley, who stubbornly fought for the present excellent site, against heavy odds.” (Morning Mercury, March 14, 1904). However, Adjutant General Dalton’s call for less ornamentation was addressed in the final plan for the armory, in which the turrets with their conical roofs were discarded. As for Cox’s many creative suggestions in urban design, Mayor Ashley and his city planners took note. Bridge Park at the western approach to the bridge became and reality as did the building in 1913 of a new high school at the head of William Street.

The Commonwealth began its official occupancy of the armory on Thursday, March 10, 1904; just six weeks after President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Dick Act, which created a truly National Guard. Named for Senator Charles Dick, the legislation replaced the antiquated Militia Act of 1792 and declared the National Guard as the Army’s primary organized reserve.

A grand dedication
The completed building was an object of great civic pride. Built as a defensible battalion armory, it was constructed of the most durable materials. The rusticated exterior was of native granite, some of which (it was reported) was mined from the ledge upon which the armory stands. The elaborate woodwork and wainscoting were of solid cypress, and the staircases were of maple. All of the custom furniture was of quartered oak. The commanders’ offices featured massive hearths, typical of a medieval castle. With an area of 12,876 square feet, the drill hall to this day remains the largest uninterrupted floor space in the city.

The Drill Hall decorated for the Armory Dedication, May 5, 1904.

The Drill Hall decorated for the Armory Dedication, May 5, 1904. With an area of 12,876 sq. ft. it remains the largest uninterrupted floor space in the city.

The May 5th dedication was the social event of 1904. More than 2000 participated in the celebration, which included Governor John Bates and the top-ranking military officers in New England. The Mercury counted “more than 100 officers of high rank, and the gold lace was so plentiful that eyes were dazzled by the brilliancy of the spectacle.” The evening celebration included opening ceremonies, a concert by Clarke’s Providence Band, elaborate refreshments throughout the upstairs rooms and a huge dance, which went on until two o’clock in the morning. At 8: 00 p.m., Governor Bates, who spent some of his boyhood years in the city, arrived amid great fanfare at the drill hall, which was festooned with hundreds of red, white and blue buntings.

The Governor, Mayor Ashley and their wives, led a grand promenade of 320 couples around the periphery of the hall. The following morning, the Mercury reported that the affair was “perhaps the most picturesque dance that has ever been given in the city. It was certainly the largest social event that has been held here, and the capacity of the huge drill hall was taxed… Not for years has the rattle of cab-horse hoofs so disturbed the early morning hours in New Bedford as at 2 a.m. today, when those who aided in making the dedication of the new state armory a success, began turning homeward.” (May 6, 1904).



The Armory’s main tower overlooks Wamsutta Mills and the full expanse of New Bedford habor (photo: Arthur Motta)

In his 1989 book, America’s Armories, historian Robert Fogelson wrote that these modern-day castles were “supposed to stand as a symbol of authority, of the overwhelming power of the state, of its determination to maintain order and, if need be, its readiness to use force.”

Twenty-four years after its dedication, the armory would play an important role in the state’s display of overwhelming power in the suppression of picketers during the violent textile strikes of 1928, in which the Riot Act was read aloud for the first time in the city by the New Bedford Chief of Police to warrant mass arrests. In his book, “The Strike of 1928” Daniel Georgianna relates how Battery F of the National Guard was not called upon during the July confrontations as many of its members had friends and family among the strikers. (p. 107).

Sally port of the Armory Drill Hall, Purchase Street

Sally port of the Armory Drill Hall, Purchase Street (photo: Arthur Motta)

The close of 2004 marked a poignant anniversary during the Armory’s centenary year.  The Massachusetts National Guard vacated it for more efficient quarters, clearing its rooms of all contents, including artifacts related to New Bedford history. The Commonwealth intended to sell the city landmark to the highest bidder, without restriction and with no public input on its future use or impact on the neighborhood. For many years the National Guard allowed community events to take place in the Drill Hall. Public calls of concern over the loss of the largest indoor public assembly space in the city prompted officials to remove it from auction block. Unfortunately, poor security thereafter invited repeated vandalism, and finally, arson. The head house sustained severe fire and water damage in March 2009. The drill house was unharmed but the site continues to await a restoration and adaptive reuse plan. A city convention hall is one of the proposed uses.


Chronology of Battery “E” Regiment, Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (formerly the New Bedford City Guards)

1852 – Organized as the New Bedford Guards on July 22nd, 1852, George A. Bourne, Chairman.
1861 – Entered U.S. Service as Co. “L” 3d Mass. Infantry., April 17th, 1861.
1862 – Mustered out, May 28th, 1862. Re-entered U.S. as Co. “E” 3d Mass. Inf., Sept. 18th, 1862.
1863 – Mustered out, June 26th, 1863.
1898 – Re-entered U.S. Service as Battery “E.” 1st Mass. H.A., April 26, 1898. Mustered out, November 14th, 1898. Complimented by Col. Carl A. Woodruff, A.C., U.S.A., commanding officer at Fort Warren, for efficiency and soldierly conduct.

Note – New Bedford ranked with the best companies of the Commonwealth in rifle work & marksmanship: Awarded 14 state and regimental trophies, and 7 silver cups (1852-1904).

Roster of the first company of Battery E to occupy the New Bedford Armory
Capt. Joseph L. Gibbs, 1st Lieut. John C. De Wolf, 2d Lieut. Ernest L. Snell, 1st Sergt. Ernest L. Soule, Q. M. Sergt. Edward K. McIntyre, Sergeants: Wm. Nelson, Harry C. Ellis, Frederick Perry, Wm. Stitt. Corporals: John J. Miller, Alfred Fredette, Richard E. Noyer, Burton G. Davoll, Thomas A. Loftus. Cook: Charles E. Duchesney. Bugler: William J. Moore. Privates: David Adams, Alexander J. Aiken, Eugene Barneby, Arthur H. Benoit, Max F. Boehler, James A. Brown, Henry Butts, Henry C. Campbell, Geo. F. Chadwick, Sam Cooper, Napoleon Desjardins, Edward E. Devoll, James Dodds, James Doran, Wm. F. Farrell, Joseph A. Fernandes, Hector S. Floret, Frank Francis, Bartholomew P. Fury, Joseph R. Girard, William Gray, James Harrison, Solomon C. Haskell, Patrick M. Haugey, Ernest Hegele, Harry A. Jameson, Sr., John F. Johnson,  Dennis Kelley, Thomas J. Kelley, Wm. F. McClure, Luc Moquin, E. Lloyd Munroe, Guy L. Murdock, Wm. T. Meagher, Lewis S. Moore, Nelson  Paradise, John B. Perry, Phillip A. Powers, Albert  Reeves, Edward J. Rourk, Herbert L. Rush, Wm. E. Russell, Freeman S. Ryonson , Gilbert G. Southworth, William Southworth, John A. Stitt, James F. Vera.

Armory head house entrance, Sycamore Street (photo: Arthur Motta, 2004)

Armory head house entrance, Sycamore Street (photo: Arthur Motta, 2004)

Boston Globe, “Armory Site Becoming a Political Issue”, February 16, 1902.
Boston Globe, “State to eye armories for a care crisis,” December 30, 2005.
Boston Herald, “Controversy over site for New Bedford’s new armory”, March 6, 1902.
Massachusetts Division of Capital Assets Management
Fogelson, Robert M., “America’s Armories; Architecture, Society and Public Order”, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Georgianna, Daniel. “The Strike of 1928”,New Bedford, Mass.: Spinner Publications, 1993.
Massachusetts Army National Guard Facilities Integrated Cultural Resource Management Plan (ICRMP) Statewide, Massachusetts, 2001-2002.
MassDevelopment Annual Report FY2008
Mayor Chas. S. Ashley scrapbooks collection, New Bedford Free Public Library
New Bedford Economic Development Council Annual Report 2013
New Bedford Evening Standard – microfiche
New Bedford Mercury – microfiche
New Bedford Standard-Times – microfiche

Colonial Chocolate Night is Feb. 13

Layout 1Colonial Chocolate Night, will be held on AHA, Thursday, February 13 from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The event features authentic colonial chocolate beverage recipes, products and free samplings. Children must be accompanied by an adult.

The program is sponsored by American Heritage Chocolate® – part of the historic division of Mars, Incorporated – which manufactures chocolate products using authentic colonial recipes made only from ingredients available during the 18th century, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, chili pepper, orange and vanilla. Products will be available for sale.

Chocolate became a highly regarded addition to ship’s fare on whaling and merchant vessels according to “Chocolate: History Culture and Heritage,” a definitive 1000-page reference on chocolate’s development as a global trade. The book is available for sale.

Moby-Dick Marathon celebrates education, Jan. 3-5

Herman Melville struggles with the opening line of Moby-Dick, as imagined by artist, Dave Blanchette

Herman Melville struggles with the opening line of Moby-Dick, as imagined by artist, Dave Blanchette

The 18th annual Moby-Dick Marathon January 3-5 celebrates education during a weekend of activities surrounding the non-stop reading of Herman Melville’s literary masterpiece at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Pia Durkin, Superintendent of New Bedford Public Schools will lead the marathon on Saturday at noon. “We are pleased to welcome Superintendent Durkin as she reads from America’s most famous novel, written by one of its greatest authors. The museum stresses the importance of writing in our high school apprentice program; it is a life skill which is critical for success in every field of endeavor,” said James Russell, museum President and CEO.

Sponsored in part by Rockland Trust and Empire Loan Charitable Foundation, admission is free to marathon programs. Freewill donations supporting museum programs are gratefully accepted. Continue reading

The New Bedford Whaling Museum at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair

The annual fall gathering for booklovers, the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, will return to the Hynes Convention Center in Boston’s beautiful Back Bay, November 15-17, 2013. The offerings are wide and diverse from over 120 dealers from the United States, England, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, and The Netherlands who will exhibit and sell rare, collectible and antiquarian books, illuminated manuscripts, autographs, maps, atlases, modern first editions, photographs, and fine and decorative prints.

This year, the Museum will be contributing to the Fair in more ways than one. Stuart Frank, Senior Curator Emeritus, will be delivering a talk titled “Intro to Scrimshaw & Collecting Scrimshaw Books” on Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 2:00pm. Additionally, the Museum has been invited to set up a booth as part of the Fair’s Cultural Row Exhibit. As part of Cultural Row, the Museum will be selling several of its publications, including Ingenious Contrivances and Arctic Regions.

Friday, November 15 5:00-9:00pm Tickets: $15.00 – Opening Night
(tickets valid throughout the weekend)
Saturday, November 16 12:00-7:00pm Tickets: $8.00
Sunday, November 17 12:00-5:00pm Tickets: $8.00; free with a valid student I.D.

Hynes Convention Center
900 Boylston Street
Boston, MA