New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park | PARK AT A GLANCE

Whale skeleton and whale boat at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Whale skeleton and whale boat at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

PARK OVERVIEW

New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was established by the U. S. Congress in 1996 to commemorate the history of the whaling industry, the fifth most valuable in America prior to the discovery of petroleum in 1859. It may see odd, or even off-putting, to honor a practice that today is regarded as heinous, but whaling was an important part of American history. Wherever you go in the park, the topic is presented in its historical context. History is not rewritten with the modern pen; no apology is ever made for nearly wiping out a species.

New Bedford was chosen as the home for the National Historical Park because it was the world’s leading whaling town in the 1800s. In the 16- and 1700s, America’s whaling fleet was based on the island of Nantucket. At that time whales were hunted close to shore, but by the 1800s these whales had been largely exterminated and ships had to travel farther and farther out to sea. Such travel required larger ships, and the waters around Nantucket were too shallow to support them. With its deep harbor, New Bedford quickly became the headquarters of the largest whaling fleet in the world, as well as home to many of the wealthiest merchants in America. Whaling peaked in 1860, and as petroleum replaced whale oil as a source of energy, the New Bedford whaling fleet dwindled down to one last ship by 1925.

Prior to petroleum, whale oil was the dominate source of oil for lighting. It was also used to make margarine, soap and other industrial cleaners, and lubricants all the way up until the early 1970s when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed.

Display of products made from whale oil

Display of products made from whale oil

Whale bone, teeth, and baleen were also turned into useful products. Baleen was used to make skirt hoops and corsets by the fashion industry—by 1900 corset production made baleen more valuable than whale oil. Bone and teeth were carved or etched for decorative purposes just as elephant ivory. Creating whale bone art, known as scrimshaw, was a popular pastime for whalers as they endured boredom on voyages that lasted two to four years. Eskimos and other native people of the north had been creating such art for centuries.

New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park consists of a variety of attractions in a thirteen-block area of downtown New Bedford, some owned by the National Park Service and others operated in partnership with the federal government. Inland attractions include the National Park Service Visitor Center where you can pick up park brochures and other information, plus peruse a small museum that covers the history of New Bedford and the creation of the park; the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the world’s largest American whaling and maritime museum; the Mariner’s House, a boarding hours for transient sailors; and the Seamen’s Bethel, a church filled with memorials to sailors who died at sea. The Bethel was made famous after being the setting for a scene in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville lived the life of a whaler himself for 18 months, departing out of New Bedford in January 1841 aboard the Acushnet.

After visiting the inland attractions, take a short walk down to Buzzards Bay to see the historic wharf area. The city of New Bedford operates the Waterfront Visitor Center in the Wharfinger Building. Inside is an exhibit dedicated to the business of fishing. Today, New Bedford brings in more money from fishing than any port in the entire United States. Its catch is worth nearly $150 million more than the catch at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the second ranked port city in terms of catch value. However, New Bedford’s catch is 600 million pounds less than that of Dutch Harbor. What’s the “catch?” Scallops. They are much more valuable than fish.

One other attraction, though not in downtown, is the Rotch-Jones-Duff House, a mansion representative of those built with whaling money. The house serves as both a historical home, complete with furnishings, and a museum about the wealthy whaling merchants who once lived in the house.

Guests are also encouraged to take a self-guided walking tour of the New Bedford historic district. The tour passes all of the above listed attractions, plus many historical homes and businesses. Brochures for this and other walking tours of New Bedford neighborhoods are available at the main Visitor Center.


OPERATING HOURS

Main Visitor Center

  • 9 AM to 5 PM
  • April–December: Daily
  • January–March: Wednesdays through Sundays
  • Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day

Waterfront Visitor Center

  • Weekdays from 8 AM to 4 PM year-round
  • Weekends from 9 AM to 4 PM, Memorial Day through Labor Day
  • Weekends from 10 AM to 3 PM the rest of the year

Times can always change, so before making travel plans get the Main Visitor Center hours on the National Park Service’s official Operating Hours and Seasons web page for New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. Hours for the Waterfront Visitor Center are listed on the Destination New Bedford website.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum, Mariner’s House, Semen’s Bethel, and Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum are all privately owned. See the following web sites for operating schedules:

www.whalingmuseum.org

seamensbethel.org (Mariner’s House as well)

rjdmuseum.org


FEES

There are no fees associated with visiting the main Visitor Center or the Waterfront Visitor Center. While no fees are required to visit the Seamen’s Bethel, donations are welcomed. There are fees to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Rotch-Jones-Duff House. See the above mentioned websites for the current costs.


SCHEDULING YOUR TIME

New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park Visitor Center
allow 1 to 1.5 hours

Ranger-guided tour of New Bedford Historic District
allow 1 hour

Waterfront Visitor Center (Wharfinger Building)
allow 15 minutes

New Bedford Whaling Museum
allow 2+ hours

Seamen’s Bethel
allow 30 minutes

Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum
allow 1 to 1.5 hours


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Last updated on June 11, 2020
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