Stop 2: U.S. Custom House

Historic photo of sostal service men standing in from of the U.S. custom house

Stop 2: U.S. Custom House

The Presence of “Big Brother” in Downtown New Bedford

37 North Second Street
New Bedford, MA 02740
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The Custom House, designed by Robert Mills, the architect of the Washington Monument (, is the oldest continuously operating Custom House in the United States. Mills believed the building should mirror the emerging economic strength of New Bedford. He designed a structure that would last for centuries, a façade made completely of solid granite. Each pillar weighs 20 tons, roughly the weight of 13 Toyota Corollas stacked on top of one another.

This building may be described as oppressive, or monumental. It’s a reminder of the government’s presence in an “open market” trading system, and its control over the importation and exportation of goods. In addition to its role as a collector of taxes, the Custom House provided Protection Papers so that American seamen could not be conscripted by foreign governments and so that free men of color could not be enslaved in southern ports. Many runaway slaves would also benefit from these protection papers issued to them by those sympathetic to their plight. One good way of not being captured was by signing up for a whaling voyage and not returning for years! This provided cheap labor for the whaling industry, and freedom for the runaway slave. A benefit to both parties. At the end of the day, he was a free man, earning as much, or as a little, as the man next to him. What would you do for freedom?


Last updated: October 26, 2020

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33 William Street
New Bedford, MA 02740



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