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New Bedford is more than simply the former whaling capital of the United States

Double Bank Building (JJ Best & Co.), New Bedford, MA
Double Bank Building (JJ Best & Co.), New Bedford, MA
Dan Couture

New Bedford, Massachusetts traces its colonial history back to 1652 when settlers from Plymouth Colony bought land along Buzzards Bay from Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe. The colony was originally called Old Dartmouth but, in 1787 when New Bedford was incorporated, it was split off from Dartmouth along with Westport and what is now Fairhaven and Acushnet. Early on, small villages formed that sustained themselves via farming or fishing.

The 19th century brought waves of immigrants starting with the Irish and then the Portuguese, the latter mostly drawn by the developing whaling and fishing industries. French, Polish and Jewish immigrants followed as textile manufacturing companies became large employers in the city. Later, African-Americans and Hispanics added more diversity and significant contributions to the city’s progress. Each group brought elements of their cultures that helped to create a city with great vitality.

While manufacturing has declined significantly, New Bedford today still boasts the largest fishing fleet in the country and has done much restoration in recent years. The area near the interesting Whaling Museum is now a national park. You will find cobblestone streets with quaint shops, galleries and restaurants surrounding them. Architectural delights abound. Across Water Street from the museum is the Double Bank Building, a stunning Greek Revival building completed in 1835. Across the street from the main entrance to the same museum is the Seamen’s Bethel immortalized by Herman Melville in his novel Moby-Dick. Several blocks away on County Street is the Rotch-Jones-Duff House built by William Rotch, a prominent whaling merchant. Both of these buildings were completed in the same 1830’s decade when the industry was entering its peak period of existence. The neighborhood has many other interesting homes to admire as well.

Down the street in Union Square another old bank is now the Ocean Explorium, an educational facility opened earlier this year focusing on environmental stewardship of the seas. If you decide to go boat-watching at the State Pier be sure to check out the schooner Ernestina. It’s in need of repair but has a history that goes back to 1894.

If church architecture is of interest to you there are a number of them to admire. None is more impressive than St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church on Acushnet Avenue. The French Renaissance structure is the design of Joseph Venne, who was also the architect of the St. Joseph Basilica in Montreal. It has a nave of 241 feet long and a steeple reaching 256 feet, the tallest in New England. There are 117 stained glass windows with 9,000 panels plus 5,500 lights in the ceiling alone to highlight the extensive artwork and intricate statues. Behind the altar a 75-foot statuary depicting the grand vision of St. Anthony is the work of Joseph Castagnoli, a noted sculptor from Italy. On some Sunday afternoons you may listen to choir and organ concerts or, as on November 28th, a performance by The New Bedford Symphony Orchestra (Handel’s Messiah in this case). The symphony’s usual venue is the beautiful and historic Zeiterion Theatre on Purchase Street, where you will find a busy live entertainment schedule that includes a variety of internationally recognized performers.

New Bedford is a little bit of a drive from most points in New England. But it’s worth the trip, so drive carefully.