It’s Indian summer on the south coast of Massachusetts; a languid heat settles over the cranberry bogs, and the swamps shimmer red and russet in the October sun.
Things are quiet in the old whaling port of New Bedford. A hundred years ago, this proud harbor would have bustled with the horns and wake of high-masted whaling ships, which plied the seas in search of the creatures that made this city one of the world’s richest. Nineteenth-century New Bedford was home to fully half the world’s whaling industry, supporting a thriving Jewish merchant community, drawing immigrants — this is still the largest Portuguese-American city — and anchoring New England’s economy.
This region of old brick factories and faded if picturesque waterfronts has struggled ever since — but it’s a marvelous place to take in a slice of Yankee history amid the fresh, salty air. Cobblestone streets and stately brick row houses are preserved in one of America’s few urban National Parks, the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park. Nearby at the Whaling Museum, you can check out whale skeletons and other artifacts from the industry’s heyday.
The rise and fall of New Bedford is mirrored in its Jewish population, which has been in a long, slow decline for generations. Portuguese-Jewish merchants were the first to arrive, drawn to opportunity in this burgeoning whaling town in colonial days; German Jews arrived in the mid-1800s, followed by waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe, particularly Lithuania, later in the century.
At the height of New Bedford’s prosperity, Jewish surnames could be spotted on businesses all over town, many in the dry goods and retail sector. Portuguese families, mostly non-Jewish, were even more numerous: immigrants from the Azores, Cape Verde and mainland Portugal arrived in droves during the 19th century, putting their seafaring skills to use in a maritime economy.
Downtown New Bedford is still a terrific bet for a steaming bowl of caldo gallego, the typical Portuguese kale-and-potato soup; linguica — a spicy Portuguese sausage — is the default pizza topping. Kosher food, in contrast, is harder to find, especially since the closing a few years ago of the 120-year-old Orthodox synagogue Ahavath Achim, which had a popular kosher meal program and was a longtime hub of religious life. But Jewish activity carries on at Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue, and in the many programs that serve New Bedford’s roughly 3,000 Jews.
Where Jewish dry goods store once stood, today there are art galleries: more than a dozen along downtown William and Acushnet streets, showcasing everything from sailboat paintings to scrimshaw. An upside of the prolonged industrial decline has been the glut of lovely old stone buildings with what architects call great bones, and penny-pinching artists have settled into these lofts, bringing youth and dynamism to a downtown that needs both.
Any doubts about city identity are put to rest by the Whaleman statue, a memorial to New Bedford’s past in the form of a man astride a wave-tossed skiff, harpoon in hand, poised to strike. This local icon, celebrated for its centenary in 2013, carries an inscription from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”; the definitive whaling novel is often referenced at events around town.
Just across the green, the New Bedford Free Public Library contains a fine collection of maritime art. Paintings are frequently on view amid the stacks or across the street at the New Bedford Museum of Art, housed in a converted bank building (smaller galleries, like the children’s area, are tucked into old vaults). The museum has no permanent collection but features rotating exhibitions of local and sea-inspired art; this season, you can see drawings from an 1860s Arctic voyage and aquatic-inspired abstractions by a local printmaker.
But it’s the New Bedford Whaling Museum that puts all this lore into context, immersing visitors in the flavor of an era. Kids who love dinosaurs are fascinated by the intact skeletons of humpback, sperm and other whales — massive creatures whose giant white bones suggest the scale and physicality of whaling. Nearly every part of the whale was used: blubber for candles, soap, varnish, and of course oil; teeth for piano keys, corsets and umbrella ribs; ambergris, delicate organ tissue, for potions and perfumes.
A room full of 18th- and 19th-century portraits puts faces on the growth of a whaling city, where diverse industries — from shipbuilding to inns to carpentry — sprang up to support the boomtown.
Many Jewish families still trace their lineage to mercantile ancestors of this time, though fewer of those ancestors were likely onboard ships like the Lagoda, a turn-of-the-century whaling vessel that sailed from Europe to the Artic and back to New Bedford. A half-scale model of the Lagoda — at 89 feet, the largest model whaling ship anywhere — is the pride of this collection.
Today’s sailors are more likely, as I did, to catch the fast ferry to the Vineyard than to board an oceangoing vessel at the still-active harbor. But from these piers, the glorious past is always in view.