Once the wharves of New Bedford were one of the great centers of American commerce. The whaling fleet was based there, providing lamp oil to a burgeoning nation, and sleek clipper ships offered the quickest passage to the West Coast gold mines and China, via Cape Horn. The whalers started to go away with the refining of petroleum for kerosene in the decade before the Civil War, and the clipper-ship era ended at about the same time with the advent of ocean-going steamships.
For years, as the city became one of the leading U.S. fishing ports, no freighters tied up at New Bedford. The harbor’s rebirth as a commercial hub dates to 2001, with the complicated redredging of the port’s PCB-contaminated shipping channels. They had become so silted that ships were frequently obliged to lighten cargoes at other ports before entering New Bedford Harbor to avoid running aground.
But this year, 28 freighters are scheduled to dock at the Whaling City’s piers, many unloading produce from Africa and South America. Because of the fishing industry, New Bedford has big cold-storage capacity.
It’s quite a turnaround story. Each delivery provides work for 50 people, say port officials. The Superfund cleanup of PCBs entailed construction of a rail yard that will connect the port to the rail system. The Harbor Development Commission plans a roll-on-roll-off rail shipping connection. Ultimately, New Bedford may become a major hub for short-sea shipping, which promises to help lighten truck congestion on the Interstate Highway System.
New Bedford isn’t the only recently re-dredged port in the region, but it seems to be the one most aggressively courting new business. Revitalizing ports as working ports (i.e., shipping), with their well-paid workers, is much better for the economic health of such old ports as New Bedford and Providence than blocking them off with condos and other low-paying enterprises.
March 13, 2010