A Whaling We Will Go

New Bedford, Massachusetts

New Bedford, Massachusetts was once the whaling capital of the world until 1925 when petroleum took over. Even today it boasts a profitable fishing fleet. Because of its maritime history, the city itself is a cornucopia of ethnic and racial diversity. Anyone of a seafaring nature finds his home here and fortune at sea.

Because whaling expeditions generally took two to four years away from home, working aboard ship was a perfect hide-a-way from runaway slaves. Frederick Douglas, the famed abolitionist, made his home here.

The National Park Service gives daily tours of the thirteen-block historical district retelling the stories of the rich and famous, the sinners and saviors. The streets, once tarred over, now reveal the Belgian brick stones once used for ballast in the whaling ships.

The NPS guides talk about miserly Hatty Green, called the Witch of Wall Street, who amassed such a fortune that in today’s dollars would be the richest woman in the world, even today.

They talk about Herman Melville, who in 1841 boarded the Acushnet, bound for the Pacific Whaling grounds. On his return he wrote the semi-autobiographical story, Moby Dick. Many references in the book had real life counterparts, like Captain Swain who died lashed to a whale, Mocha Dick a light colored elusive sperm whale, and Whaleman’s Chapel based on Seamen’s Bethel.

Seamen’s Bethel was a haven of prayer and learning among the brothels and bars on the street. Next door, still functioning, is Marine’s Home, where seamen could find a safe room. Even today any sea person, even one who only owns a rowboat, or military person can stay there for $10.00 per night. The pulpit in Seamen’s Bethel is a new addition to the chapel, since the filming of Moby Dick. Only a desk stood there until the tourists insisted that the chapel should have the prow of the ship there. They got their wish, including a bare breasted figurehead, which would have been unheard of one hundred years ago.

A memorial commemorating the 54th Massachusetts Regiment stands in the district. Here men of color were mustered into service during the Civil War. Captain Kearny was from New Bedford. Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Glory was loosely based on his life. His descendents still reside there.

Not to be missed is the Whaling Museum. Everything you want to know about whaling can be found here. From the skeleton of a beached whale hanging from the ceiling of the lobby, still dripping oil from it bones to the weapons used to kill and harvest the whale blubber and spermaceti oil for making candles, the exhibits depict the life on board the whaling ships. The danger, the adventure, the tedium, the rewards, and the everyday tasks of whaling are vividly shown in film, hands on exhibits, and in paintings throughout the museum. Figure to spend at least two to three hours to see everything.


John Pelley is a Geriatric Gypsy. He is retired from the rat race of working. He is a full-time RVer, who ran away from home. He began our travels on the East Coast and, like the migrating birds, seek the warmth of the seasons He has discovered volunteering with the National Park System. He has a CD he has recorded of Native American flute music., A Day with Kokopelli. For pictures, links, and more information visit www.jmpelly.org.

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