Welcome to Lights, Money, New Bedford Tour

Historic painting of what New Bedford streets used to look like with men and women walking along dirt paths


Whaling in New Bedford started with the Wampanoag tribe. Drift and shore whaling was frequently practiced by the indigenous people, because a successful hunt could feed an entire tribe. The natives whaled out of necessity and survival. The English settlement of Nantucket, an island not far away, approached whaling differently. The English culture was much more materialistic, whaling for profit. Although there was already a small whaling port in New Bedford during the 1700s, Nantucket as an island still had the advantage being closer to the whale migration routes. As the number of whales in the Atlantic began to decline, ships grew to accommodate longer trips, and being able to process and store the whale at sea. The obstructing sandbars, and dangerous shoals around Nantucket Island hampered the use of these larger vessels which led to its decline as a whaling port. New Bedford’s deep water port attracted more whaling merchants, and the area began to blossom. Immigrants and freedom seekers across the world found new beginnings and better financial prospects here in the growing city. Whaling provided many of the raw materials for American life in the 18th and 19th centuries; from illumination, lubrication of machinery, to high fashion.

By the end of the 1820’s, whaling grounds extended to pacific. New Bedford was becoming the world’s leading whaling port and global center of oil investment, processing, and distribution. Operations grew with each decade, and bolstered the local economy. With the arrival of the railroad in 1840 and easier access to New York and Boston markets, New Bedford became the richest city in the world, per capita. The wealth of the upper class funneled into the city, which created more jobs and brough art, libraries, and a Lyceum to downtown for all to enjoy. These “levelers” created an interesting, and dynamic relationship between the whaling elite and average citizens. This city represents potential for opportunity of any individual, regardless of class and race through its economic growth.


Last updated: October 26, 2020

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33 William Street
New Bedford , MA 02740



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