Tuesday, March 29, 2016

New Bedford

If you have been gripped by the history of whaling or by reading Herman Melville’s unforgettable novel Moby Dick, then at some point you owe yourself a trip to New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was the Capital of Whaling in the 19th Century and is still America’s busiest fishing port. Trust me, one day will not be enough; you will need at least a weekend, and if you and your family really like going deep into history, three or four days would not be excessive.

Its favorable location and excellent harbor made New Bedford a natural for the whaling and fishing industries from its start. It vied with Nantucket for domination of whaling but eventually won out, thanks in part to technical innovations; the toggle iron harpoon, which became the standard, was invented by African-American blacksmith and New Bedford resident Lewis Temple in 1848.
Portuguese immigrants already familiar with whaling from their bases in the Azores and other Atlantic islands began to come to New Bedford in large numbers in the early 19th Century, and this is still home to the largest Portuguese-American community in the United States. Which also means that if you have a taste for traditional Iberian seafood dishes such as paella, the city’s restaurants will not disappoint!

There are nine historic districts in New Bedford – few cities have so many – and two of them, the New Bedford Historic District and the Merrill’s Wharf Historic District, are part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. There is so much to see in this area, although there are also many New Bedford attractions beyond it.

Readers of Moby Dick will know that the novel opens in New Bedford, and that one of the early scenes takes place at the Seamen’s Bethel (which Melville calls the “Whaleman’s Chapel,” and which was built in 1832), where the character Father Mapple gives a powerful sermon. (This part was played in director John Huston’s 1956 film version by Orson Welles, and exteriors were shot at the actual Bethel.)

Visiting the Bethel and sitting in its pews is an intensely moving experience. All sailors traditionally did so before going to sea. The walls are covered with the names of New Bedford whalers and fisherman who died in their work. The Bethel is still actively used for religious services, weddings, and funerals.

Just a few blocks away, in front of the main branch of the New Bedford Public Library, is the famous Whaleman Statue.

Elsewhere in the area are the Mariners’ Home, which the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) is working on turning into a Fishermen’s Museum; the 1834 U.S. Customhouse, the oldest such building still in active use by the U.S. Government; the 1848 Durant Sail Loft on Merrill’s Wharf…

…the 1834 Rotch-Jones-Duff House, home to three prominent whaling business families over the years…

…and (usually) the 1894 fishing schooner Ernestina, one of the oldest ships of its kind still afloat (currently under restoration offsite in order to keep it seaworthy).

But the centerpiece of the Whaling National Historic Park is the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which occupies several historic buildings and boasts a diverse group of collections, as well as a research library and film theater. These collections include the world’s largest assemblages of scrimshaw (ivory pieces carved by whalers) and whaling log books; paintings by great artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Albert Pinkham Ryder; a large array of historic glass; five complete whale skeletons…

…and the world’s largest ship model, the Lagoda, built in 1916, which at 89 feet is half the size of the original ship, and which may be boarded by visitors.

All in all, you certainly won’t regret a trip to New Bedford!

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