The White Whale

Passage Maker - - Contents - Jonathan Cooper

At the es­tu­ary of the Acush­net River in Mas­sachusetts lies New Bed­ford, a true-to-her-roots fish­ing port sit­u­ated 60 miles south of Bos­ton. I imag­ine that most peo­ple sail­ing these shores land some­where near here, but not ex­actly here: Ever-en-vogue Newport, Martha’s Vine­yard, Block Is­land, and Nan­tucket prob­a­bly win the New Eng­land cruis­ing des­ti­na­tion sweep­stakes.

Few towns in Amer­ica, how­ever, can match the mar­itime his­tory of New Bed­ford. Her cul­tur­ally di­verse pop­u­la­tion has been drawn to the town’s salty spirit since the early days, and by the mid-19th cen­tury, tiny New Bed­ford was one of the wealth­i­est cities in the coun­try, per capita, largely due to her deal­ings in whale blub­ber, oil, and sper­ma­ceti. Re­ferred to as “The Whale Town,” New Bed­ford’s nick­name be­lied the fact that she played host to a strong sup­port­ing cast, from her nu­mer­ous ship­builders (this is where the fa­mous Charles W. Mor­gan was built, af­ter all) to the writ­ers and artists in­spired by the town’s suc­cesses. For gen­er­a­tions the whal­ing busi­ness was king and the fleet that called New Bed­ford home reached a zenith in 1857, to­tal­ing 329 ships. Not bad for a town of 22,000, half of whom worked in whal­ing.

But the de­cline would come, pre­cip­i­tated in 1849 when whalers left their em­ploy­ers to seek Gold Rush for­tune out west. A decade later, pe­tro­leum would be­gin to re­place whale oil as the fuel of choice in lanterns, and in 1871, the loss of nearly two dozen whale­boats in the ice of Alaska helped punc­tu­ate the in­dus­try’s fall. With the last whaler re­tired in the early 20th cen­tury, New Bed­ford scram­bled for an eco­nomic lifeboat.

To­day’s New Bed­ford has mod­ern­ized in many ways, but nearly a cen­tury af­ter the fi­nal whaler re­tired from ser­vice, there is still big busi­ness to be had pluck­ing seafood from the ocean. Tourism, too, is strong, thanks to the ex­em­plary New Bed­ford Whal­ing Mu­seum. Her­man Melville him­self worked the decks of a New Bed­ford whaler be­fore writ­ing Moby-Dick and his scene in the Whale­man’s Chapel (Sea­men’s Bethel) still com­pels Melville fans from around the globe to pay homage. It’s not all about Melville, though. On a re­cent visit, I toured a room in honor of solo ad­ven­turer, Joshua Slocum, and about to kick off was a year­long ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing the knots and artistry of another lo­cal, Clif­ford W. Ash­ley. The mu­seum is the most thought­fully cu­rated mar­itime mu­seum I’ve ever vis­ited.

Make sure to read Ce­cilia Kiely’s ex­cel­lent fea­ture story on the town of New Bed­ford and the whal­ing mu­seum (start­ing on page 44). Safe cruis­ing.

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