I wasn’t that keen to learn about whaling, which seems like such a cruel practice. But New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park was a nearby national park site in southern Massachusetts, and we had a cold, drizzly day, so why not? We were surprised to find that we enjoyed the Visitor Center displays and film, both of which were excellent. Before petroleum came along, whale oil was a major source of fuel for lamps, and baleen (long tissues made of keratin that whales use to filter food through their mouths) provided a strong yet flexible material used in ladies’ corsets and other goods that would now be made of plastic. The whaling industry made New Bedford the wealthiest city in the country at one point in the 1800s, the evidence of which you can see in the many fine historic homes in town.
Unlike in the South, many people here belonged to the Quaker faith. Because of their belief in equality for all people, Quakers strongly opposed slavery. Thus, women and non-white residents had a much better time of things here in New England. When escaped slave Frederick Douglass found his way north, it was here in New Bedford where sympathetic people welcomed him and joined him in the abolitionist cause.
Life on the whaling ships — where black, white and immigrant (especially Portuguese) sailors earned the same wages — was a dirty, smelly, dangerous affair, and at the same time it was dreadfully boring as sailors waited for a whale sighting. Scrimshaw (whale bone and walrus tusk) carving and music became two of the most creative ways to pass the time. That explains the wealth of sea shanties and whaling songs that still exist today, particularly in Celtic music from eastern Canada.
We strolled through the charming downtown harbor area over to the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum. From 1834 to 1981, a succession of three wealthy families lived in this Greek Revival mansion, the first of which earned their fortune from whaling. The self-guided tour allows visitors to go into each room unimpeded by barriers to observe the furnishings, paintings, accessories and other historic artifacts, of course with admonitions not to touch anything and cameras to keep visitors on their best behavior. It is rare that historic homes allow visitors such free rein.
The gardens were also a showpiece in their day. Many of the hedges had just been pruned in preparation for the summer season, during which the garden hosts parties, concerts and other events on the property. We had to use our imaginations a bit to conjure up what the garden must look like at its bloomiest and loveliest.
We wanted to spend more time exploring this cute harbor town, but rain arrived and derailed those plans for the day. But we had better weather when we checked out another cute harbor town in Massachusetts — Salem.
Skipping ahead north of Boston (which we’ll recap in a separate post shortly), we met our Peabody-based friend Lilian for a tour of Salem. We began at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. This multi-location park preserves historic homes and buildings from the late 1600s to early 1900s that sit next to the harbor, and the park film in the Visitor Center provides a good overview of the area’s history. In its heyday, Salem was the sixth-largest city in the country and a thriving center of the shipping industry. Wharves, warehouses, a Custom House and the homes of several shipping magnates are open for tours in the summer, but we arrived a bit too early in the season.
Nevertheless, we found the public stores behind the Custom House open and took at peek at the displays of trade goods that came through this port from all over the world. Cocoa, tea, coffee, sugar, ivory, silk, cotton and spices were just some of the products that passed through Salem. I was stunned to read that one ship brought in one million pounds of black pepper. Given how lightweight pepper is, I can’t imagine how much space one million pounds of it must have taken up, or how big the ship must have been to carry such a load!
Another historic site in the harbor area is the House of Seven Gables, made famous in the book of the same name by Salem author Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the interest of time we skipped a tour of the house and instead went to the Peabody Essex Museum. The museum had an excellent temporary exhibit, “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age,” which showcased exquisite items imported from Asia that adorned the homes of Amsterdam’s wealthy elite in the 17th Century.
Our last stop was the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, which commemorates the deaths of 20 young women and men accused of witchcraft in 1692. Most of them were executed by hanging, but one particularly unlucky soul was pressed to death. Egad.
And as always on this trip, we were pressed for time, so we said goodbye to Lilian, with hopes to return one summer to spend a little more time in this historically interesting and visually compelling little seaside town.