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Rotch-Jones-Duff House
The Rotch-Jones-Duff House preserves a whaling merchant’s mansion and gardens. (NPS/John Robson)

whale skeleton on display
Kids get a sense of whales and wonder. (New Bedford Whaling Museum/John Robson)

two men on the dock
At the dock, Ranger Frank Barrows talks with a local fisherman. (NPS/John Robson)

NPS.gov homepage photo: The historic New Bedford streetscape. (NPS/John Robson)

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New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

Herman Melville called it “the dearest place to live in all New England.”

The cobblestone streets of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, a 34-acre, authentic whaling town, echo with the feet of Quaker women, wealthy merchants, Azoreans, Cape Verdeans, natives of the South Pacific and African Americans (both free-born and escaped slaves).  All came here to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the prosperous whaling industry.

An appreciation for every man “pulling his own weight” made New Bedford a safe haven on the Underground Railroad. Some fugitive slaves made this a transitional home on their way farther north. Frederick Douglass’s first free home is found at the Nathan and Polly Johnson house. Others settled in and became part of the city’s diverse population. The contributions of Sgt. William Carney and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first formally organized black regiment in the Civil War, are commemorated at the park.

The world famous Whaling Museum, newly renovated and expanded, houses everything from whale skeletons to a half-scale model of a whale ship. The Seamen’s Bethel, the authentic whalemen’s chapel made famous in the novel Moby-Dick seems to reverberate with the sound of Enoch Mudge’s fire and brimstone sermons.

Explore the domestic side of whaling riches at the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, a whaling merchant’s mansion that preserves the transition from Quaker simplicity to the romantic flowering of the Victorian family.

Because New Bedford whale ships brought people and their traditions from every corner of the world, you can enjoy many fine ethnic restaurants and, during the summer, colorful folk festivals, such as Summerfest and the Portuguese Feast, the largest Portuguese festival in the country.

The legacy of its maritime past has created a bustling waterfront. Today’s fishing fleet makes New Bedford America’s top fishing port when it comes to the value of its catch. The 1894 fishing schooner Ernestina, berthed at the waterfront, was an Arctic explorer as well as a packet ship from the Cape Verde Islands. Catch a rare opportunity to see the behind-the-scenes workings of the fishing industry at the Working Waterfront Festival on September 25-26, 2010.

The best place to begin your experience is the visitor center, housed in a historic bank at 33 William Street. See the film The City That Lit the World and the exhibits about the whaling industry and the people instrumental in its success. Then depart with a ranger or volunteer on a free walking tour. Living history characters from the 1850s will connect you to the past with their conversations, crafts and stories. You might care to join them in a game of croquet. Kids can prepare for their visit or learn from home with A Whaling Adventure.

New Bedford is easily accessible from Interstate 195. Take exit 15 and follow the signs to the cobblestones streets and into America’s whaling past.

By Judy Roderiques and Lucy Bly, National Park Rangers, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park