New Bedford, MA
Sagamore, MA - Events of Friday, September 13, 2013
New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of the most important, if not the most important, whaling ports in the late 1700s and early 1800s. New Bedford, which is located about 45 minutes southwest of where we were staying, has a whaling museum we decided we wanted to see, so we headed there on Friday morning.
There is on-street metered parking in downtown New Bedford, but we couldn't find an empty space, so we went to a parking garage that we thought was close to the museum. The rates weren't too bad - $1.50 an hour.
The museum wasn't where we thought it was, so after walking several blocks in the wrong direction, we remembered, duh, we had our smartphone with us, so we looked up the location of the museum on Google Maps and eventually found it. (We're still getting used to how smart our phone is!) Wouldn't you know, there is free, two-hour parking on the street where the museum is located. Oh, well. You win some and you lose some.
Admission the New Bedford Whaling Museum is $14 ($12 for seniors over 65). Right inside the lobby there is an awe-inspiring display of three whale skeletons. They are (left to right) a 49-foot right whale, a 66-foot blue whale and a 37-foot humpback whale. All these skeletons came from whales that were found dead or were killed accidentally.
There is a theater on the main floor that shows a video of the history of whaling. Early settlers in America rowed out in small boats to pursue whales that happened to come close to shore. After the whales in the immediate vicinity of shore had been hunted out, larger boats went out longer distances from shore.
In the early days, whale carcasses were always brought back to shore for processing. Strips of blubber were boiled in large pots called try pots to render the oil. The blubber would turn rancid if not processed within a short time of killing the whale, so the distance the ships could travel to hunt whales was limited.
Eventually, someone discovered they could build a furnace from bricks, called a try works, right on the deck of a ship and process whale oil while they were at sea. The ability to process oil at sea enabled it to be stored in barrels in the hold and allowed ships to travel great distances in search of whales. Whaling ships traveled to South America, the South Pacific and even Antarctica. Whaling voyages typically lasted three to five years.
Whaling began in New England in the late 1600s around the island of Nantucket, which lies to the south of Cape Cod. Cape Cod had an advantage because it was away from the mainland and therefore closer to the migratory routes and feeding grounds of the whales. As larger ships began to be used for whaling, the advantage shifted to New Bedford because of its deep harbor, which Nantucket did not have. New Bedford was also more conveniently located on the mainland.
The primary use of whales was for oil, which was used for lubrication and for oil-burning lamps. Some species of whales also have rows of fringed plates called baleen attached to the roof of their mouths. Baleen whales eat tiny sea animals such as krill, and they use the baleen to strain the krill from huge mouths-full of seawater. Baleen, which is the same type of tissue as human fingernails, was used back in the 1700s and 1800s for corset stays and for ribs of parasols.
The museum has three floors. After viewing the video in the theater on the entrance level, we began our tour on the second level, which is the main level.
What would any maritime museum be without ship models. The New Bedford Whaling Museum currently has a temporary exhibit of a large collection of models of whaling ships and whaleboats on the main level. A whaling ship was the large vessel that went to sea for several years to hunt whales. Each whaling ship carried 4 to 6 whaleboats, which were smaller boats used to actually pursue the whales once they were spotted by the larger whaling ship.
The Charles W. Morgan is a well-known whaling ship, and is the oldest surviving merchant ship. She was built in New Bedford in 1841 and was in service for about 80 years. The ship has been restored and is on display at Mystic Seaport, CT.
The museum had several models of the Charles W. Morgan on display as part of their special exhibit of ship models.
Whaleboats are open boats that were used to chase down the whales so they could be harpooned. Most whaleboats were equipped with a centerboard and a sail to make it easier to chase down the whale. Once the whaleboat got close, the crew of 6 or 8 men would take down the mast and sail and use oars to maneuver into the proper position for harpooning. The whaleboats were pointed on both ends to make them easy to maneuver. The exhibit included several models of whaleboats.
There was also a large, one quarter-size model of a sailboat.
At the other end of the spectrum was a tiny model of a whale-hunting scene that included several whaleboats and a whaling ship. The whaling ship was only about an inch long, but it included incredible detail. Don't forget you can click on the photo to enlarge it.
Sailors on long whaling voyages needed something to keep themselves busy, so they used the byproducts of the whale harvest, the teeth and pieces of bone, to make decorative items. Scrimshaw is the name given to engraving images onto animal bone or ivory. The Whaling Museum has a very extensive collection of scrimshaw and other decorative items made from whale teeth and bone. Many sailors had their wives and girlfriends in mind when they were at sea, because the items in the upper right of the photo below are for unwinding skeins of yarn. There were also jewelry boxes, pie-crimping wheels and holders for spools of thread.
We have seen numerous examples of scrimshaw in several museums while we have been in New England, and the examples at the Whaling Museum are by far the most intricate, detailed and artistic of any we have seen.
There were also larger works made from whale bone like a chair (not shown) and the banjo in the photo below.
There were a couple of galleries that had maritime paintings on the third floor where we headed next. The third floor also has an observation deck where visitors can see New Bedford Harbor with hundreds of commercial fishing boats.
By the mid-1800s, whales had been hunted to the point where their numbers had been greatly reduced. The discovery of oil in Titusville, PA in 1859 came in the nick of time because the use of kerosene for lighting reduced the demand for whale oil. New Bedford sailors made the transition to commercial fishing following the decline of whaling. Unfortunately, regulations in the 1990s to prevent overfishing have greatly hampered the fishing industry.
From the third floor, visitors can also see the half-size replica of the whaling ship Lagoda. After checking it out from above, we headed back down to the second floor for a closer look. Visitors can actually board the replica of the Lagoda, but you need to be careful you don't bump your head. Because it is only half-size, there are lots of low clearances.
After we finished at the museum, we walked across the street to take a look at the Mariners' Home. Many sailors who went on whaling voyages for years at a time had no permanent home when they were back in port. Built in 1787, the Mariners' Home provided a place for the sailors to stay while they are in port waiting for their next voyage. The home is still in operation.
There are a lot of historic buildings in New Bedford, and there is a walking tour with informational plaques around the downtown area. Our feet were tired from walking the museum, so we didn't do the walking tour; but we did stop to check out some of the buildings on our way back to the parking garage.
One of the historic homes we passed belonged to Benjamin Rodman, who, although he was born into a prosperous whaling family, devoted his life to helping the poor of New Bedford. The house was built in 1821 in the Federal style.
On our way back to the motor home from New Bedford, we stopped at the Qdoba Mexican Grill in Wareham, MA for lupper. Then, with our bellies full, we made our way back to the motor home to rest up for our next sightseeing outing. Stay tuned.