New Bedford renaissance rides on whales

Massachusetts city faithfully recounts its history, in glory and in slaughter

Destination: New England

March 09, 2003|By Anne Farrow | Anne Farrow,Special to the Sun

When you walk the cobbled streets of New Bedford, Mass., these days, you smell the sea and fresh paint. Once one of the richest cities in America, with hundreds of ships calling it their home port, this Massa-chusetts city was the nation's whaling capital and a great textile manufacturing center before falling on decades of hard times.

But the city Herman Melville praised for its "patrician-like houses" and beautiful gardens is coming back, and this time history is setting the agenda.

The revival is centered in, and radiates from, a 13-block neighborhood that was designated a national park in November 1996. The New Bedford National Whaling Historical Park is home to an extraordinary history museum and a variety of smaller cultural institutions, as well as restaurants, shops, galleries and some happening nightspots.

The city streets rise gently from the waterfront and, from nearly every vantage, you can see the harbor. It reminds you where you are, and what New Bedford meant.

Melville said it best, and most directly. The money for the great houses and gardens he saw came from whales, "harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea." In the effort to rebuild itself, New Bedford is confronting its own past squarely, the slaughter as well as the glory.

When you walk into the New Bedford Whaling Museum on Johnny Cake Hill, you see this at once. Built in 1916 by the devoted daughter of a whaling magnate, the structure houses a half-scale model of a whaling bark called the Lagoda. (Even at half size, the thing is 89 feet long and as big as a church.)

Until a few years ago, visitors entered the museum and were confronted by this mighty ship model. Now, after a renovation completed in 2000, you enter through a glass atrium, where the skeletons of two whales are suspended above. Huge and ghostly, they are a profound, silent reminder of a natural resource laid waste.

Haven for fleeing slaves

When you enter the exhibition area, the first faces you see are black.

New Bedford's Quaker whalemen were murder on the cetaceans but enlightened about the human rights of black people. During whaling's heyday before the Civil War, black men constituted one-sixth of the labor force on whale ships, and the city was a mecca for black people fleeing slavery in the South and discrimination in the North.

The discovery of petroleum in 1859 took the wind out of the industry's sails, but whaling continued until the early 20th century, and black men -- African-Americans and Cape Verdeans from the islands off the west coast of Africa -- represented a majority of the crew members.

Several years ago, the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Mass., a small museum with a world-class collection of maritime paintings, scrimshaw, manuscripts and art objects, merged its holdings with New Bedford's. The Kendall collections bring international scope and depth to a business that much of the world pursued but New England dominated, and it makes visiting the museum a daylong experience.

We had thought to spend an hour breezing through, then take one of the city's self-guided architectural tours. (There's so much to see; the New Bedford Preservation Society has three separate brochures, each detailing dozens of sites.) But we couldn't tear ourselves away from the whaling museum.

Finally, after a late al fresco lunch of curried chicken on rye at a small cafe nearby, we set out on foot to simply wander and look at old buildings.

A rich history

Your eyes tell you -- even if you skip the helpful brochures at the Visitors Center on Williams Street -- that New Bedford mattered.

The fortune of Hetty Green, "the Witch of Wall Street" and at one time the richest woman in America, was New Bedford money. The city's prosperity, as Mark Twain once said of a Wagner opera, came early and stayed late. In the 1840s, more than 400 of the world's 740 whale ships called New Bedford and nearby Fairhaven home, and when Melville shipped out of New Bedford on the Acushnet in 1841, it was a city of marvels; many of them have survived.

Block after block of old banks, brick warehouses and wooden ships' chandleries rise above the harbor. You walk over the rough granite cobblestones and hear hammers ringing; an old building awaiting restoration is wrapped in plastic to keep out the weather, and its tarps luff in the wind like sails. On the steps of one of the oldest customhouses in America, a bride in flowing white and her bridegroom pose for photographs.

We repaired to Freestone's City Grill, formerly a bank, for a tall, foaming glass of Old Buzzard Ale and to contemplate our dinner arrangements. A gorilla-size brass monkey named Darwin has swung comfortably above the bar for 23 years. He is, like the 1877 stone landmark he dominates, a local fixture.

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