Friday, January 28, 2011

In My Footsteps: Trip 99: New Bedford, Massachusetts

In My Footsteps
Christopher Setterlund

Trip 99:  New Bedford, Massachusetts
December 2, 2010

            An historic seaport matched in importance only Gloucester that’s what New Bedford is.  Nicknamed ‘The Whaling City’ it was one of the largest whaling ports in the world during the 19th century.  That history is still a big part of what makes New Bedford a popular destination for travelers.  However the whaling history is only the tip of the iceberg as I was pleased to learn.  In addition to the New Bedford Whaling Museum there are forts, historic homes, and some extraordinary cobblestone streets.
Fort Rodman, Clarke's Point Light on top.
            The first place I visited when I arrived in New Bedford was a pair of old forts strategically placed on Clarke’s Point, the southernmost point of the city which sticks out into Buzzards Bay.  Fort Taber is a living breathing artifact.  It is two buildings, an earthen fort and granite fort side by side along the breezy shores.  The earthen fort was built during the Civil War in 1861.  It was built first as Governor John Andrew and Mayor Issac Taber could not wait for state or federal aid to help build the granite fort at the dawning of the Civil War.
The much larger, granite structure next to the earthen fort was started shortly thereafter; the United States War Department stopped construction in 1871.  It was locally finished in 1898 and named Fort Rodman after Civil War Lt. Col. Logan Rodman of New Bedford.  The Clark’s Point Lighthouse, which once stood alongside the granite structure, was placed on the second tier of the fort and is easily visible today.   The many windows of Fort Rodman have been sealed shut using brick.  However there have been holes chipped into these bricks making it possible to see inside and even for me to get my camera inside to snap photos of the courtyard.
Garden at Rotch-Jones-Duff Museum
Despite being two different buildings with two different names, the area is usually mistakenly simply called Fort Taber.  The granite fort is kept under lock and key but the earthen fort can be entered, though beware as vandals have sprayed graffiti inside and littered as well.  It is not as large as Fort Revere in Hull but walking through the darkened tunnels of this fort is creepy yet exhilarating.  You can almost feel what it was like when the fort was active 150 years ago.
Butler Flats Light
Not to be missed is a spark plug lighthouse known as Butler Flats Light.  It is quite a ways out if you walk the long pier which stretches out from Clarke’s Point.  It is a lot closer to shore as you’re leaving the forts.  There are a few spots to stop along East Rodney French Boulevard where you can get a much better view of the lighthouse at the mouth of the Acushnet River.  Built in 1898 Butler Flats Light was the replacement for Clarke’s Point Light.  That lighthouse stood along the shore from 1799 until 1869.  Once Fort Rodman had taken shape a new wooden structure was built on top of it where the lantern was relocated.  The stone lighthouse tower stood until 1906. 
One really nice historic home in New Bedford is the Rotch-Jones-Duff House.  It was built in 1834 for a whaling merchant named William Rotch Jr.  The house has three names, one for each of the families that lived at the house at different times.  The Rotch family obviously when it was first built in 1834, the Jones family starting in 1851, and the Duff family starting in 1935.
New Bedford Whaling Museum
The house has a more golden yellow color which looked impressive with the sun softly shining on it.  However the best part of this twenty-eight room mansion actually is outside where the amazing garden resides.  The garden encompasses a full city block and even in the late autumn it was a sight to behold.  It is said that the current garden is more in line with the time that the Jones family lived here.  There is a knee-high hedge maze which wraps around patches of beautiful flowers, some of which were still colorful even at this late stage of the season.  I would put this location on my list when planning a visit to New Bedford in the warmer months.
One area that needs no time frame to be enjoyed is a virtual time warp back to the 19th century.  In the historic district of New Bedford, near the waterfront, there is a block of streets which are still lined with cobblestones.  Just walking these streets is a magical experience but when that is coupled with the fact that nearly every building you pass is significant it makes it a nearly perfect place to explore.
The Whaleman's Chapel from Moby Dick
Of course most people know of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, established in 1903, it is probably the most visited spot in the entirety of New Bedford.  Inside there are more than 200,000 artifacts from the past few centuries which give a complete history of the whaling industry in New Bedford and the entire ‘Old Dartmouth’ area.  This museum is a must see for all visitors.
The home of another rich whaling and banking industry pioneer Andrew Robeson is famous for having its 500 ton frame moved some 400 feet in 1978.  The federal-style(brick) home built in 1821 was in line to be torn down in the name of progress but it was saved by the Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE(WHALE).  It was painstakingly moved inch by inch from Second Street and turned ninety degrees before it came to rest at its current locale on Williams St.  That story is enough to warrant a visit when passing through New Bedford.
The cobblestone historic district has so much to see that it would be impossible to list it all.  I can only tell you to park and walk, you will be sure to find some amazing places.  Of course the Whaling Museum needs to be seen and don’t forget the historic forts out at Clarke’s Point.  New Bedford is one of the most historic seaports in the country and I can’t recommend a visit enough.  Have fun and happy traveling!    

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DirectionsFort Taber/Rodman: From I-195 West take Exit 15 into New Bedford.  Follow John F Kennedy Memorial Highway until you need to bear right onto Rodney French Blvd.  The Fort Taber/Rodman site is on the right at the end of the road.
            Rotch-Jones-Duff Museum:  From I-195 take Exit 15, continue onto JFK Memorial Highway for 1.7 miles, turn right at Union St., turn left at 7th St., follow it .2 miles to house on right.
            New Bedford Whaling Museum:  From I-195 take Exit 15, continue onto JFK Memorial Highway for 1.5 miles, turn right at Elm St.  Take the 2nd left onto 1st St., museum is on left.  

            New Bedford Whaling Museum

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