New Bedford, Massachusetts: The City That Lit the World

Historic District, New Bedford
Richard Cummins / Getty Images

New Bedford, Massachusetts, is New England's best place to dive into whaling history. "The City that Lit the World" with its whale oil bounty and inspired Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick, was home base for 500 whaling ships during its 19th-century heyday.

Home to the nation's largest institution devoted to the whaling industry, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and the 13-block New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, established in 1996 to preserve the city's architectural, cultural and historical legacy, New Bedford is a fascinating destination not only for its past but for its 20th-century resurgence as America's most profitable commercial fishing port.

These photos from New Bedford will introduce you to the Whaling City's sights and to the risky, yet immensely rewarding, big game hunt that made this deep port city one of America's wealthiest and most diverse and cosmopolitan cities by the 1850s.

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Visitor Center

New Bedford Visitor Center
English Wikipedia user Daniel Case [ GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Start your visit to New Bedford, Massachusetts, at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park Visitor Center at the corner of William and Second Streets. Here, you can pick up brochures and maps and learn about seasonal guided tours.

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New Bedford Custom House

New Bedford Custom House
By Rolf Müller [ GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

New Bedford's Greek Revival Custom House on Second Street, completed in 1836, is the country's oldest continuously operating custom house. Today, instead of registering whaling ships and tracking their catch, it serves the city's commercial fishery.

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A Whale of a Museum

Whaling Museum National Historical Park, New Bedford, Massachusetts, USA
Richard Cummins / Getty Images

The New Bedford Whaling Museum—America's largest whaling museum—is New Bedford's premier attraction. The museum is a repository for eclectic whaling-era artifacts including more than 7,500 paintings and prints, 180,000 photos, 3,000 works of scrimshaw, 6,000 decorative arts pieces, 3,000 tools and implements, maps, logbooks, and more.

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Lagoda Whaling Ship

Lagoda Whaling Ship
By New Bedford Whaling Museum - I created this work entirely by myself., CC BY 3.0, Link

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is also home to the world's largest ship model. Climb aboard the half-scale recreation of the whaling bark Lagoda for a glimpse at what whaling crew members' lives were like at sea as they pursued these great beasts.

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New Bedford Harbor

New Bedford
DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

New Bedford Harbor, viewed from the roof of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, was once the home port for 500 whaling vessels. By 1925, however, this deep, calm harbor had seen its last whaling ship.

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Fishing Boats in New Bedford

Fishing boats
KenWiedemann / Getty Images

Today, New Bedford, Massachusetts, has ​re-established its place as America's number one fishing port. Fishing boats and scallop draggers now occupy the harbor, from which whaling ships once set sail.