When you think of New Bedford, Massachusetts, several things come immediately to mind—commercial fisheries, factory outlet stores, textile mills, and of course, whaling.
Located in Bristol County, 51 miles south of Boston, and a scant 28 miles southeast of Providence, Rhode Island, New Bedford’s burgeoning population of 95,072, makes it the sixth-largest city in The Bay State.
The Whaling City and Moby Dick
Situated on the south coast of Massachusetts, New Bedford has always earned its living from the sea and is known as “The Whaling City.” During the 19th century, the town was one of the most important whaling ports in the world, due largely to the fact that in 1848, New Bedford resident Lewis Temple invented the toggling harpoon, a device that would revolutionize the whaling industry. His invention, which allowed whaling fleets to capture more whales gave New Bedford prominence in the whaling industry, edging out its rival, Nantucket.
Fishing and manufacturing continue to be two of the city’s largest businesses today, with the healthcare industry on the way to becoming a major employer. Tourism also appears to be a growing industry, spurred on by the city’s numerous street fairs and festivals. The popular 16-year-old Greater New Bedford Summerfest has emerged as one of the country’s top festivals that showcase the world’s best in contemporary, traditional and Celtic folk music. New Bedford also hosts the traditional Blessing of The Fleet and the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, the largest Portuguese cultural celebration in the country.
Novelist Herman Melville, who actually worked in New Bedford as a whaler, wrote “Moby-Dick” using the city as a partial setting for the allegorical book he published in 1851. It is considered today to be one of the Great American novels, featuring the literary concepts of class and social status, the existence of God, and the theme of good vs. evil.
In 1652, Plymouth County settlers purchased what is today’s New Bedford from Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe, and intense controversy soon followed. The Wampanoags were under the impression that they were granting usage rights to the land to the European settlers, not giving it up permanently.
The settlers immediately built the colonial town of Old Dartmouth, which included present day Dartmouth and present day New Bedford. Founded in 1747, New Bedford officially became a city in 1847, and shortly after Abraham Hathaway Howland was elected as the first mayor. Meanwhile, whaling continued to dominate the city’s economy.
New Bedford experienced a growth spurt in the late 18th century. The town’s first newspaper “The New Bedford Marine Journal” was founded in 1792, as well as the town’s first post office, with William Tobey presiding over the of the position as postmaster. Four years later a bridge was constructed connecting New Bedford and present-day Fairhaven.
It wasn’t long before the city became a melting pot for many nationalities looking for employment in the fishing industry. Whaling captain Paul Cuffee was a major contributor to the success of New Bedford whaling, sailing his ships in and out of New Bedford harbor to every corner of the globe.
One noted African American, who also found a safe haven in the town, was runaway slave Frederick Douglass. It happened that New Bedford was a major “way station” or stopping point on the Underground Railroad, a system that had been set up to provide shelter and assistance for runaway slaves.
The abolitionist arrived in New Bedford in 1838 and writes in great detail of his new home in his autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.”
“In the afternoon of the day when I reached New Bedford, I visited wharves, to take a view of the shipping. Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth,” Douglass writes in Chapter 11 of his autobiography. “Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size. Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life.”
New Bedford was also home to members of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an American Civil War regiment to preserve the Union. It was the first regiment in the country formed entirely by African American troops who served with white officers.
Two legal cases brought the community unwanted notoriety. First in June 1893, alleged ax murderess Lizzie Borden went to trial in New Bedford. The famous case involved the brutal hatchet death of her parents Abby and Andrew. Lizzie was charged with the murders and ultimately acquitted after a controversial and sensationalistic trial. To this day, questions about who committed the murders remain.
On March 6, 1983, New Bedford was again the location of a crime that made international headlines and shocked the world. On that date, Cheryl Araujo, a 21 year-old mother of two was gang-raped by four men on a pool table in Big Dan’s tavern in the north end section of the city, an area known for drug activity. Araujo fought off the rapists and ran half-naked in the street, where three college students passing by in a van came across her and drove her to the nearest hospital.
During the trial Araujo testified that she heard people “laughing, cheering and yelling,” but no one responded to her cries for help. During the prosecution, the defendants’ attorney’s harshly cross-examined her. The case became widely seen as a template for “blaming the victim,” in rape cases.
The four defendants were convicted of aggravated rape and the incident was the basis of the 1988 Academy award-winning film “The Accused,” starring Jodie Foster as Cheryl Araujo. After the highly publicized case Araujo moved with her two daughters and their father to Miami, where she became an activist for women’s and victim’s rights.
New Bedford Today
Due to the increase in tourism, Fairfield Inn and Suites opened in the New Bedford Harbor in 2010 and became the first hotel to open in the city in 40 years.
Locals and tourists alike also can take advantage of high-speed ferry boats that travel to Martha’s Vineyard in about an hour. Most boats make up to as many as six trips a day during the summer.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is a very popular tourist destination. It is the country’s largest whaling museum and focuses on the history of interaction between humans and whales. A crowd pleasing display features the skeletons of a 66-foot long baby blue whale, a 35-foot-long adult humpback whale, and a 45-foot-long sperm whale, all of which died in New England waters.
New Bedford continues to be the world’s most famous whaling era seaport and the number one fishing port in America. Lined with beautifully-maintained parks and beaches and sprinkled with a vast array of restaurants, cafes, bistros, shops and galleries makes New Bedford an appealing place to live or visit.
Christy Smith-Sloman is a staff writer for New England Condominium and other publications.