New Bedford and the South Coast of Massachusetts

Why New Bedford:

New Bedford is a historic whaling town located 90 minutes south of Boston or 30 minutes east of Providence, Rhode Island. The historic town center is run by the National Park Service. 

I was visiting my sister´s future in-laws, Paul and Betsey, in Rhode Island and asked if we could visit New Bedford as part of my quest to visit all the national park service sites. 

It turns out that Betsey is from the town of Mattapoisett which is right next to New Bedford and she had not visited in a while. So, we decided to do a South Coast of Massachusetts trip for the day. 

April 23, 2022: The South Coast

The drive from East Greenwich, Rhode Island to New Bedford took about 1 hour. After parking in the city lot, we walked over to the National Park Service visitor center where we learned a bit about the history of the town. However, the real highlight was the world-famous whaling museum across the street. We lucked out and got the free guided highlights tour. The guide was spectacular. 

With my hosts Paul and Betsey

New Bedford was the center of America´s whaling industry in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Boats would leave New Bedford in search of whales. The crews would kill the whales and harvest their oil. That oil would power lamps. As there were few other fuel sources at that time (electricity and oil had not been discovered), whale oil was the predominant way to keep homes and cities illuminated. As a result of this industry, New Bedford became the wealthiest town per capita not just in the United States but in the entire world. 

Sperm whale skeleton and jar of whale oil

The industry died out for two reasons: 1. The discovery of oil and 2. Whales were nearly hunted to extinction.

Voyages would start and end in New Bedford but would travel the world in search of the whales. 

It turns out that the best whalers lived in the Azores Islands, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. So, typically whaling boats would stop there first to get crews. They would then fill out their crew in the (also Portuguese) Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. Then, they would said back across the Atlantic, ´round Cape Horn and into the South Pacific where the most whales lived. 

A typical voyage would try to kill 20-30 whales before heading home. This process would take 5-7 years. Then they would return home. 

By the early 1900´s, the whales in the Pacific were hunted to near extinction and the whalers had to find new whaling grounds. That led them to the polar regions: Greenland and Antarctica. 

Our guide explained in great detail how whales were killed. The crew would always have someone on lookout. If they spotted a whale breathing, they would alert the crew who would then get into the smaller rowboat. The crew would quietly row over to the whale and then stick a harpoon into the whale´s back. This would enrage the whale which would then typically take off. The whale would tug the boat until it tired. At that point, the crew would stab the whale in its lung until it died. They would then lug the whale back to the main boat for processing. 

Sometimes, however, the whale would dive into the depths. This was bad news for the crew, who would attempt to sever the line. If they could not cut the line, they too would be dragged down into Davy Jones´ locker. Hundreds of whalers have died this way over the years. 

Landside, the whaling industry, had a few interesting cultural impacts. Many of the Portuguese crews decided not to go back home after the voyages and instead stay in the US. That Azorean and Cape Verdean population still exists on the South Coast of Massachusetts and in Rhode Island. There are so many Portuguese here that Portugal has a consulate in New Bedford and there used to be a weekly flight between Providence and Cape Verde! Many of the Portuguese foods such as linguica have worked their way into the local cuisine. 

Additionally, the whaling industry was one of the few industries at the time where African Americans could earn a good salary, as all the sailors were paid the same according to their rank/role. As a result, many former and runaway slaves came to New Bedford in search of employment. In fact, New Bedford has the highest African American population of any city in the US. This also led to New Bedford becoming the center of the Abolitionist movement. Important figures such as Frederick Douglass lived in New Bedford 

Former home of Frederick Douglass

While the whaling museum has some incredible treasures such as 4 whale skeletons (including a blue whale) and the world´s largest scrimshaw collection, and a real whaling ship, the highlight was the tour. 

Part of the world’s largest scrimshaw collection

Having seen the museum, we headed into town for lunch. While New Bedford is no longer a whaling center, it is now the largest seafood port in the United States. Most of the money comes from scallops. We ordered Rhode Island-style calamari (with cherry tomatoes) and I got a bouillabaisse with linguica. 

New Bedford-style lunch

New Bedford has a few more surprises. One of them is the Seamen´s Bethel. This is a church dedicated to the whalers who died at sea. Plaques honoring the dead ring the church. The church was frequented by Herman Melville and he apparently wrote Moby Dick while sitting in a pew in the back. The church is reportedly featured in the novel, but it has a whaling boat pulpit which didn´t exist in real life. The boat pulpit was eventually added to the church, but only recently after years of disappointment from tourists. 

Seamen´s Bethel

Additionally, there are many other historic homes to see including one owned by a whaling executive. 

We then drove east for 15 minutes to the small town of Mattapoisett. Betsey grew up here. She showed us her childhood home on the beach and the lighthouse, her school, and the restaurant where she worked her first job. I have always loved visiting people´s hometowns. It helps me paint a fuller picture of that person as it is here that the person develops their values. 

Mattapoisett Casino – the tennis club where my father worked as a pro during college

It turns out that Mattapoisett has an interesting role in my own family history. My father worked at the local tennis club (called the Casino) as a pro during college. We visited the Casino and it hasn´t changed one bit since the 70´s. 

On the way back to Rhode Island, we stopped at a Portuguese grocery store in Falls River. This was no ordinary market, but a full on gourmet grocery store packed with Portuguese and Azorean goods. The highlight was the room of salted bacalhau (codfish). We grabbed some warm pasteis de nata and headed home. 

Room of bacalhau

Final Thoughts:

The South Coast of Massachusetts is completely unknown to most Americans, but it is rife with culture. The whaling, the Portuguese, the wealth, the abolitionism, the stories. There are so many layers! The obvious highlight is the whaling museum, but there are other sites too that can take up nearly an entire day. The whaling museum is also a rare attraction open year-round in this part of the country. For this reason, I would recommend visiting New Bedford as a day trip from Boston, Cape Cod or Rhode Island. 

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