New Bedford and Portsmouth, RI

This was an excellent week! We visited New Bedford, MA, visited with Bonni’s first cousin Alison, and attended our first Polo match.

To visit New Bedford we moored at the historic New Bedford Yacht Club. The club was founded in 1877 and is located on Padanaram Harbor in the town of South Dartmouth. It is a beautiful facility with a lovely clubhouse, dining and a bar, extensive dockage, two launches that operate until 2200 hours, and a massive mooring field. Friendly people and a first class operation. IMG_1349

Bon’s cousin Alison joined us for a couple of days and we had a marvelous visit. Until this short visit I did not really know her but now we’re bff. Bon and Alison had a lot of catching up to do and we plan on visiting Alison and her husband Charlie when we get to Florida.

We spent an entire day exploring the historic parts of the New Bedford downtown and waterfront. New Bedford is the home of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the centerpiece of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. It is the country’s largest museum on the subject of whaling and the history of interaction between humans and whales. The museum and other nearby exhibits are outstanding. The museum has the skeletons of a 66-foot long baby blue whale, a 35-foot-long adult humpback whale, and a 45-foot-long sperm whale on display (see below). We also went on two Park Service walking tours. Here’s some of what we learned:

Europeans first settled New Bedford in 1652. English Plymouth Colony settlers purchased the land from Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe. The settlers used the land to build the colonial town of Old Dartmouth. A section of Old Dartmouth near the west bank of the Acushnet River, originally called Bedford Village, was officially incorporated as the town of New Bedford in 1787 after the Revolutionary War. The name was suggested by the Russell family, who were prominent citizens.

The economy of the Pilgrim settlement in the New Bedford area was initially based around a few farming and fishing villages. The early Bedford Village quickly became a commercial zone and from there became a major whaling and foreign trade port. In the early 18th century, the Russell family purchased this area and developed it into a larger village.

By the 18th century, entrepreneurs in the area, such as whaling merchants from nearby Nantucket, were attracted to the village and helped make it into one of the top whaling cities in the country. The most significant of these merchants was Joseph Rotch, who bought 10 acres of land in 1765 from Joseph Russell III on which he and his sons ran the family business. Rotch moved his business to New Bedford since it would be better for refining whale oil and manufacturing candles made from whales. As these parts of the whaling industry had been monopolized by a merchant cartel in Boston, Newport, Rhode Island, and Providence, Rhode Island, Rotch felt that it would be better for business to handle these himself by moving to the mainland.

The relationship between New Bedford and Nantucket allowed the two cities to dominate the whaling industry. In 1848 New Bedford resident Lewis Temple invented the toggling harpoon, an invention that would revolutionize the whaling industry. This helped make New Bedford the preeminent city in the U.S. whaling industry.

Another factor was the increased draft of whaling ships, in part the result of greater use of steel in their construction, which made them too deep for Nantucket harbor. Syren, the longest lived of the clipper ships, spent over a decade transporting whale oil and whaling products to New Bedford, principally from Honolulu, and was owned for several years by William H. Besse of New Bedford. As a result of its control over whaling products that were used widely throughout the world (most importantly whale oil), New Bedford became one of the richest per capita cities in the world.

Many whalers would quit their jobs in 1849, though, as the Gold Rush attracted many of them to leave New Bedford for California. During this time Herman Melville, who worked in New Bedford as a whaler, wrote Moby-Dick and published it in 1851; the city would be the initial setting of the book, including a scene set in the Seaman’s Bethel, which still stands today. As you can see in the picture below, we sat in his seat at the Bethel.

Despite the power it gave to New Bedford, the whaling industry began to decline starting in 1859 when petroleum, which would become a popular alternative to whale oil, was discovered. (I strongly suggest that readers listen to the old Jonathan Winters album and his hilarious depiction of the last days of whaling…it’s a hoot.) Another blow came with the Whaling Disaster of 1871, in which twenty-two New Bedford whalers were lost in the ice off the coast of Alaska. Because the whalers had killed off most of the nearby whales they had been forced to go greater distances to seek their prey. Some ships were gone for five years or more! The largest whaling company in the United States sent out its last whaleship in 1914, and whaling in New Bedford came to its final end in 1925, with the last whaling expedition.

On our second walking tour we learned that since the seventeenth century, New Bedford has been a major destination for immigrants. As the whaling industry grew, the need for crewmen for ships influenced New Bedford’s ethnic character. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, crews were drawn from men of African, British, or Native American ancestry who had settled in and around the city. Beginning around 1800, increasing numbers of whalemen from the Azores and Cape Verdes, islands governed by Portugal, joined the crews of New Bedford vessels and began to make their homes in the city. As a potato famine ravaged Ireland in the mid-19th century, many residents fled and established a large New Bedford Irish community.

African-Americans have been a presence in New Bedford since its early days. Runaway and freed slaves were attracted by the Quaker majority’s early opposition to slavery and the prospect of employment on whaleships. Free seamen from continental Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, and the Caribbean also became part of the African-American heritage of New Bedford.

More than 3,000 African-Americans served on New Bedford whalers between 1803 and 1860. However, after the turn of the twentieth century, Cape Verdeans became the backbone of the whaling industry.

New Bedford was an important stop on the “underground railway,” a network of people opposed to slavery, who hid runaway slaves in homes and churches. Frederick Douglass found refuge in New Bedford from 1837-1841. He worked at Coffin’s Wharf before becoming a renowned abolitionist, orator, politician, and writer.

Like other American cities, New Bedford was transformed by 19th century industrialization, which brought an influx of immigrants, who wanted jobs and relief from difficult conditions in their native lands. Although only 14% of the city’s population was foreign-born in 1865, the development of the textile industry swelled that percentage to 40% by 1900.

Portuguese from mainland Portugal and the Madeira islands began arriving after 1870 to work in the mills, joining earlier immigrants from the Azores and Cape Verde Islands to make the Portuguese the largest cultural community in New Bedford today.

French-Canadians also came to work in the mills in the years after the end of the Civil War. For a time around 1900, they were the largest group of immigrants in New Bedford.

In the mid-1840s, New Bedford was the site of the first petroleum fuel refinery in the United States, as newly discovered Pennsylvania crude oil was shipped to New Bedford to be refined for lamp oil and other oil. Standard Oil would ultimately buy this refinery, located on Fish Island.

New Bedford was able to remain wealthy because of its textile industry. Starting in 1881, the textile industry grew large enough to sustain the city’s economy. The era of textile prosperity began to decline in the Great Depression and ended in the 1940s. At its height, though, over 30,000 people were employed by the 32 cotton-manufacturing companies that owned the textile factories of New Bedford.

Tool and die operations like the Morse Company also left, starting in the 1970s.

New Bedford is still home to a significant commercial fishing community that fishes the Georges Bank. We visited a small museum dedicated to this industry.

Today we transited to Portsmouth and Bonni noticed that there was a scheduled Polo Match between the US team and the Brits. As luck would have it, the marina manager knew the father of the team captain and before we knew it we had front row seats at the match. It was an impressive event and nothing like I had imagined. It was not a swanky event…there were people from all walks of life in attendance. The action on the grounds lasted about two hours and the play is intense. I’d definitely do it again. Stewie concurs.

(Credit to Wikipedia, various National Park Service brochures, and the New Bedford town website.)IMG_0535IMG_0534IMG_0533IMG_0530IMG_0529IMG_0527IMG_0524IMG_1362

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