August 3, 2015

Have A Whale Of A Time In New Bedford, Massachusetts

The New Bedford Whaling Museum (right) tells the global story of whales and whaling, and is open daily.

What do novelist Herman Melville, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and two members of the ‘90’s hip-hop group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch have in common?

We won’t leave you hanging: All of the above have ties to New Bedford, Massachusetts, either living or working in the city at some point in their lives. (Melville and Douglass came to New Bedford later in life, while the two Funky Bunch members, Hector Barros and Scott Ross, are New Bedford natives.) The city of about 95,000, located right on the state’s Buzzards Bay, is rife with whaling history, as well as abolitionist and African-American heritage.

Check out our list of highlights of some of the amazing cultural and historical experiences that New Bedford has to offer, including nine historic districts and the oldest continuously operating jail in the United States. (Plus, it's home to the First Baptist Church, one of our National Treasures.) You’re guaranteed to leave with good vibrations.

Whaling Museum/Whaling National Historical Park

Home to 3,000 pieces of scrimshaw and 2,500 handwritten accounts of whaling voyages, the New Bedford Whaling Museum is the centerpiece of the larger Whaling National Historical Park, which commemorates the heritage of the world’s preeminent whaling port during the 19th century. Ships, whale skeletons, harpoons, whaling log books, and navigational instruments are on full display.

A highlight: a half-scale model of the whaling ship Lagoda, which was constructed in the center of the museum's Bourne Building in 1915-16.

A half-scale model of the Lagoda, a whaling ship of the same name, on display at the museum.

Captain Haskell’s Octagon House

If you’re looking for accommodations with a healthy dose of local character, look no further than the circa-1848 Octagon House Bed & Breakfast. Originally built by Captain Fordyce Dennis Haskell of the New Bedford whaler Mercury, this uniquely-shaped house was a prime example of the “Octagon Mode” of architecture popularized for a brief time in the late 19th century by Orson Squire Fowler, supposedly economizing space and enhancing health and happiness. The house underwent a painstaking restoration in the 1980s that is still ongoing, but it’s the perfect place to take in a dose of history while you sleep.

Nathan and Polly Johnson House

Nathan and Mary ("Polly") Johnson, a free African-American abolitionist couple living in New Bedford, hosted Frederick Douglass at their circa-1800 home on Seventh Street after his escape from slavery in 1838. This house is the only one of Douglass’s three homes in New Bedford that remains today. The Johnsons also ran an Underground Railroad stop out of their home, aiding escaped enslaved workers on their journey to freedom. While the house is privately owned, tours are available by appointment. It was recently restored to the way it looked in 1857.

Seamen’s Bethel Church

Sailors who called New Bedford their home port congregated at this 1832 church prior to setting sail, considering it a matter of tradition that they visit the chapel before going to sea. Referenced as the “Whaleman’s Chapel” in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a bow-shaped pulpit was installed at Seamen’s Bethel in 1961 after Melville mentioned it in his fictionalized scene. The names of New Bedford whalers, and later all area fisherman, killed while at sea line the walls of the chapel.

The Seamen’s Bethel Church, fictionalized by Herman Melville as the “Whaleman’s Chapel” in Moby-Dick, was built in 1832. The bow-shaped pulpit was added later as a homage to Melville.

Zeiterion Performing Arts Center

The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, which originally opened in 1923, is New Bedford’s only surviving former vaudeville theater and is currently owned by the city. It was “modernized” in 1971 and saved from the wrecking ball in the early ‘80s, re-opening as a performing arts space in 1982. It’s been restored to its former Flapper-era glory and regularly hosts performances by the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble and the Gary Burton Quartet, among others.

Fort Rodman/Fort Taber Park

Fort Rodman, built between 1857 and 1871 to defend the vulnerable port at New Bedford after raids during the American Revolution, War of 1812 and Civil War, forms the centerpiece of this historical park. Explore the fort's military museum, stroll the waterfront or enjoy a free public outdoor concert or live historic reenactment.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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