New Bedford in BBC travel!
New Bedford, Massachusetts, is a place few have heard of. But the mark it has left on the world is profound.
By Mike MacEacheran
20 July 2018
On the south-eastern underbelly of the Massachusetts shoreline, overshadowed by the hook-shaped peninsula of beautiful Cape Cod and the harbour islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, New Bedford is the kind of place most visitors drive right through.
All but forgotten on the Acushnet River, the downtown is a relic of its 19th-Century heyday, preserved as a monument to history and a peculiar reminder of the city’s rise and fall. The quaysides and cobbles still buzz with local life, but scratch below the surface and darker, more uncomfortable truths lurk on every corner.
Because New Bedford isn’t just any town. On a visit, you’ll learn it was once the wealthiest city per capita in North America. But you’ll also hear it was where men were 100 times more likely to die than anywhere else and that the streets were once overrun with blubber and blood. The catalyst? Whaling.
National Park Ranger Andrew Schnetzer walks visitors through this murky history several times a week, chewing over the divisive, taboo and controversial subject. First, he takes them down William Street, site of the red-bricked New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park headquarters. Then to Water Street, once wall-to-wall with candle works, coopers, carpenters, shipwrights, blacksmiths, oil refineries, insurance companies and the richest banks on the continent.
“We call New Bedford ‘the city that lit the world’ for a reason,” Schnetzer told me, pointing to what was once the most profitable street in the US. “The Quakers – the religious dissidents who first settled the area – found that if they rendered the fat from a whale carcass washed on shore, then lit it, they had smokeless, scentless, beautiful lamp oil.”
As gruesome as it sounds, whale oil was a plentiful resource, and within years the operation had multiplied tenfold. To increase yields, liquid spermaceti wax was harvested from the skulls of sperm whales that swam in the channels of Nantucket Sound, then later processed into fuel.
What made it so attractive was that it was cleaner, brighter and worth six to eight times more than regular whale oil. In 1850, for instance, Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory produced 4,000 boxes of spermaceti candles, plus more than 450,000 gallons of refined sperm oil valued at $300,000 – about $9 million (£6.85 million) in today’s terms. It was a huge profit few argued with. Even if, they say, you could smell New Bedford before you could see it.
Within a few generations, the hard-working, parsimonious Quakers had become global titans of the whaling industry, masterminding a business controlled as much by those on shore as on ship. And in the rippling wake, New Bedford was put on the world map.
“At that time, New Bedford was supplying 5,000 street lamps in London,” Schnetzer said, matter-of-factly. “The oil was shipped to Europe, South America and the West Indies, even helping kick-start the American Industrial Revolution. Get in a car today and drive around. The system for making that possible was invented on Water Street. Flick a light switch on in your room, and it’s the same thing. It all began here.”
Today, New Bedford still lives off the deep harbour that empties into Buzzards Bay. Thanks to scalloping, it has the highest value of any fishing port in the US, landing up to 65 million kg of seafood annually. But dig deeper, and the whaling story remains writ large on the streets. The Moby-Dick Brewing Company is on the corner of Union Street, while the faux-historical Whaler’s Tavern is next door. Running parallel on Johnny Cake Hill is the clapboard Mariners’ Home (it only stopped housing fishermen in 2006) and, next to that, the Seamen’s Bethel, which continues its mission of remembrance for lost mariners.