2019 Life Logs, Day 302: New Bedford Historical Tour
Date: Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Weather: Overcast with Some Drizzle; High 61, Low 47 degrees F
Location: At Home in The Cottage, East Falmouth, MA
The historical tour of New Bedford, Massachusetts, today was so very interesting. Every summer many tourists who drive from New York, Connecticut, or Rhode Island to Cape Cod, pass by New Bedford on the highway, but most don’t stop. I have driven to New Bedford to take the Goldpebbles to the Whaling Museum a few times and I have gone to Zeiterion Theater, but I have never driven through the historic streets. I had no idea they were there. I knew that New Bedford was the whaling capitol of the world in the mid-1800’s, but I knew little else. So today was a true eye opener for me.
We started our day with an hour and half tour of the historic neighborhoods led by Preservation Society guide, Bruce Barnes. He was a wealth of information on types of architecture, on the role of the Quakers in establishing the whaling industry while also offering a safe haven for runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad, and the barons of the textile industry. We saw the home that is now the New Bedford Historical Society. It is an unremarkable structure with a remarkable history. It was once the home of Nathan and Mary “Polly” Johnson, African-American entrepreneurs, who allowed their home to be used as an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglas and his wife Anna lived in the Johnson home at 21 Seventh Street. Abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, also lived in this house for a period of time.
Stops were made at the Quaker Friends Meeting House, at the home where “the richest woman in the world” lived in the Gilded Age in the late 1800’s. Henrietta Howland Greene was a shrewd businesswoman and also known as the “witch of Wall Street.”
We saw the home of William Rotch Rodman that was known as the grandest home in New England and visited the the home and gardens of William Rotch, Jr. There were many other stops, but one of our last was at William J. Rotch Gothic Cottage. It is a National Historic Landmark as it was seen as one of the most outstanding examples of American Gothic Revival architecture when it was built. The Quaker Rotch family came to New Bedford from Nantucket and were instrumental in establishing the New Bedford whaling industry.
After our walking tour through the historic district, we walked downtown to the National Park Visitor Center. There we watched the film, The City That Lit the World, learning about the whaling industry. “In January of 1841, a young Herman Melville boarded the whaleship Acushnet, and left the port of New Bedford bound for the distant Pacific Ocean. At 21, Melville was beginning a voyage that he would later drawn on for several novels of seafaring life, including the American classic, Moby-Dick.” Melville spent 18 months on the Acushnet, learning to be a whaler. In Moby-Dick, he wrote of his character Ishmael, “ . . . a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” After the film, Park Ranger Rufai Shardow, originally from Ghana, gave us a wonderful overview of the role of slavery, the abolitionists and whaling in New Bedford’s history.
We ended our tour by walking across a cobblestone street from the Visitor Center to Freestones City Grill for lunch.Freestones was once one of the 19 banks it took to handle all of the money made in New Bedford from the whaling industry at its peak. Wonderful day. And I will definitely return to New Bedford to learn more.