Some Thoughts on New Bedford from a Visiting Sailor

From the Journals of Constant Waterman, Matthew Goldman
WindCheck Magazine August 2008

How can I say enough about New Bedford? If it weren’t for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I’d vote for New Bef ’d to be the capital city of Massachusetts. After all, their fish chowder is as good, or better, than Boston’s. Their streets are all one way, just as Boston’s are. All we’d have to do is build the new Fenway Park close to New Bef ’d. Think of it: you could sit in the stands and watch Manny hit one into the harbor and, at the same time, keep one eye on your sloop to make sure her anchor wasn’t dragging.
I really should tell you a little about New Bedford. That way you can cast your ballot in an educated and decisive manner when they vote to move the capital.
Bartholomew Gosnold sailed from England and arrived in Buzzards Bay in 1602. He stopped first at Cuttyhunk. After waiting several days for the ferry to no avail, he figured he’d better sail to New Bedford. Others, since, have also complained about the schedule of the ferry connecting Cuttyhunk to New Bedford. I solved that problem years ago by buying myself a boat. Me and Bartholomew have a few things in common.
Though none of his crew was willing to stay in New Bedford, Gosnold still receives credit for being the first European to make a landfall here. Later contingents of English found their way here from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The local people, the Wampanoag, under the leadership of Massasoit, at first received them well but, as usual, resentment of the encroachment on their lands by the thousands of strangers led to violence. The eventual destruction of the Wampanoag under their leader, King Philip, took place in 1675.
New Bedford once included Acushnet and Fairhaven, Dartmouth and Westport. In my time, New Bedford had more haddock than it had people; Westport had more hermit crabs than people; Acushnet had more Holsteins than it had people; and Dartmouth, at least South Dartmouth, had more sailboats than people. This last is a fact; one of the few I’m proud to have invented.
New Bedford was once to fishing what Boston is to traffic: both produced more than anyone knew what to do with. For several recent decades, it was the East Coast’s largest fishing port. With a fleet of 250 boats, more tons of cod, haddock, flounder, herring, mackerel, lobster, and scallops arrive at the piers than you and your family could eat in an afternoon – even if you chose to ignore the French fries.
Georges Bank has been greatly depleted. The curtailment of fishing, implemented in 1996, ruined the livelihoods of hundreds of people. Despite this, the statistics for 2006 are still impressive. Of all US ports, New Bedford’s landings ranked seventh in weight: 170 million pounds; but first in value: 281 million dollars.
Even though certain species of fish still exist in large numbers, limits on catches supposedly assure a future for fishing. Many regulations are hotly contested. As certain fish prey on others, and some cannot be fished, the balance in some populations becomes precarious. Local fishermen, whether Portuguese or Yankee, have opinions on how fisheries should be managed. Be careful what you say to fishermen down at the piers about these regulations – lobster pot bait is always in demand, and we might not miss you until it’s too late to do anything else but begin to melt the butter.
It wouldn’t be the first time that New Bedford endured a setback. Two other major industries have flourished and then gone under in this city.
Firstly, whaling. Whale oil lit the houses of millions around the globe. By 1857, the heyday of the industry, New Bedford, with 329 whalers that employed 10,000 men, was the largest whaling seaport in the world. Herman Melville shipped from New Bedford in the Acushnet in 1841. Ten years later, writing of this city in Moby Dick, he said:
“… nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? … Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered… In New Bedford, fathers, they say, give whales for dowers to their daughters….”
I once spent an afternoon rambling here to admire these elegant residences: the impressive entryways; the delicate leaded glass sidelights, the cupolas, the turrets, the tall bay windows, the fragrant gardens surrounded by wrought iron fences.
An elderly woman encouraged me to look about her house: a three story octagon that boasted bay windows on every second side of the first two stories, and was crowned on the topmost story by large dormers. From the cupola, a wife could watch for her husband’s whaler; wait and watch.
I climbed the dozen broad granite steps to the pair of massive oak doors. This house was built around a huge spiral staircase: the banisters and balusters of walnut; the carpeting of crimson plush; the wallpaper flocked with red flowers. Off this impressive stairwell opened trapezoidal rooms with paneled walls. The kitchen had slate floors, a huge slate sink, a double width wood burning range. In the sixteen-foot bay window grew a kitchen garden of tomatoes and peppers and basil; oregano, rosemary, chives, and thyme; parsley, sage, mint, and dill. The sun streamed cheerfully in.
Hundreds of whaling captains and ship owners built such houses about New Bedford. Then, in the second half of the nineteenth century, petroleum put an end to the whaling industry. The last whaler to leave New Bedford was the John R. Manta in 1925. The Charles W. Morgan, launched in New Bedford in 1841, headed for Mystic Seaport in 1941 – the oldest wooden whaler still in existence.
By the 1880’s, the cotton industry arrived in New Bedford. Thirty-two mills employed 30,000 workers. By the end of World War I, textile mills began to go south and, later, overseas. Precision cutting tools came to New Bedford, greatly because of Samuel A. Morse, inventor and entrepreneur. From 1864 to 1990, Morse Cutting Tools produced drill bits, saw blades, and milling cutters.
Though fishing and manufacturing continue, two recent industries have helped the economy here. The first is aquaculture – the raising of fish in tanks. The second, tourism, a phenomenon imported from Miami, now has entrenched itself within New Bedford. I applaud the fact that one can still get lost in downtown New Bedford and enjoy it. As long as you don’t succumb to buying a fortyfoot plastic whale for your bathtub, no one will dub you a tourist.
If you want to see whales, go to the Whaling Museum. The largest museum of its type, it houses a half-scale model of a whale ship. It also houses the skeletons of a sixty-five foot blue whale, a forty-five foot sperm whale, and a thirty-five foot humpback. Innumerable artifacts accompany the history of the whaling trade. From ambergris to scrimshaw; from whalebone to spermaceti candles, there is something to draw your attention.
Its harbor is one reason that New Bedford has been so successful. Long and deep, it has the capacity for hundreds of ships and boats. The great hurricane of 1938 demolished New Bedford. Hurricane Carol, in 1954, proved no more gentle. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers built a seawall across the mouth of the harbor, continuing down Clarks Point and around Clarks Cove. This hurricane barrier, over three miles in length and standing twenty feet above mean water, is the largest stonework project in the Eastern United States.
The gap in the wall where the channel flows is one hundred fifty feet. A pair of huge gates can close this gap in twelve minutes. When hurricane Bob assailed this city in 1991, its storm surge of eight to ten feet was denied admission, although the winds took numerous roofs in passing.
The seawall, even with its gates open, restricts the Acushnet River that feeds the harbor. Silt must be continually pumped or dredged. Unfortunately, PCBs from industry upriver have proved a hazard. Technology, labeled progress, begets problems, which begets, in turn, more technology. What would our engineers do if we continued to live in caves?
Wait until Fenway Park is rebuilt in New Bef ’d. The Army Corps of Engineers will have a challenge: how to dispose of all those baseballs the Red Sox hit into the harbor.
Source URL:

Scroll to Top
Get news from New Bedford Economic Development Council in your inbox

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: . You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact