1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/New Bedford

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NEW BEDFORD, a city and port of entry, and one of the county-seats of Bristol county, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 56 m. S. of Boston, at the mouth of the Acushnet river, and at the head of New Bedford Harbor, an arm of Buzzard's Bay. Pop. (1890) 40,733; (1900) 62,442, of whom 25,529 were foreign-born, including 8559 French Canadians, 5389 English, 4802 Portuguese and 3020 Irish; (1910 census) 96,652. New Bedford is the terminus of two divisions of the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad, and is connected with Taunton (the other county-seat), Fall River, Brockton and other cities by interurban electric railways. Passenger steamboat lines connect with Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Buzzard's Bay points; a freight line and, in summer, daily passenger service to New York are maintained; the Insular Navigation Co. (Empreza Insulana de Navegação) runs passenger and freight steamers from New Bedford to Lisbon, and to the Azores; and there is a regular sailing packet service between New Bedford and the Cape Verde Islands. Two bridges connect New Bedford with the township of Fairhaven, on the E. side of the harbour; one, a steel bridge, is almost 1 m. in length and cost $1,500,000. New Bedford is attractively situated, and, commercially, occupies a particularly favourable position. It covers about 20 sq. m., and extends along the W. side of the river and harbour for several miles. Unusual dockage facilities are thus provided. The harbour was improved by the Federal government, between 1840 and 1906, the channel from Buzzard's Bay through the harbour being 18 ft. deep and 200 ft. wide; under a project of 1907 it was contemplated to increase the depth of the channel to 25 ft. and the width to 300 ft. There is a broad driveway along the shore of the harbour to Clark's Point at the entrance, where during the Civil War the United States government erected a stone fort, Fort Rodman, in which a garrison of artillery is still maintained; New Bedford was one of the 26 places reported by the U.S. Chief of Engineers in 1909 as having “permanent seacoast defences.” Among the principal buildings and institutions are the post office and custom house, the city hall, the county court house, the registry of deeds building, the masonic building, the merchants' national bank, the institution for savings, St Joseph's and St Luke's hospitals, the Swain free school, St Mary's (Roman Catholic) school, the Friends' academy, a state textile school, a state armory and St Mary's home. The public library, established as a private society library in 1802, taken over by the city in 1853, and housed in the refitted old city hall building, was one of the first free public libraries in the United States; it contains about 100,000 volumes, and has notable collections relating to the whaling industry and to the Quakers. The Sailors' Bethel, built in 1831, and containing memorial tablets reminiscent of the whaling days, is of interest. The Old Dartmouth Historical Society was organized in 1903. A fine park system, aggregating 255 acres, includes the Common, and Brooklawn, Buttonwood, Hazelwood, Grove and Triangle Parks. The city owns and operates a fine water-supply system.

When whale-oil was a widely used illuminant, New Bedford was long the principal port of the world's whaling industry; and in point of tonnage owned it is perhaps still so, as many New Bedford vessels now sail from San Francisco. As early as the middle of the 18th century, vessels sailed on whaling voyages from the mouth of the Acushnet river, but it was not until 1765, when Joseph Rotch, a Nantucket merchant, bought a tract of land on the W. side of the river and constructed wharves and warehouses, that the industry became established here. At first the whales were obtained principally off the Virginia and Carolina coasts, but by the outbreak of the War of Independence, the New Bedford whalers sought their prey as far as West Indian and even South American waters. The War of Independence temporarily ruined the industry, but it was soon re-established, and the field of operations was much extended, after 1791 many ships regularly rounding Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. By 1804 there were 59 whaling vessels registered from New Bedford. The unsettled commercial conditions of the early years of the 19th century and the Embargo combined to ruin the business once more, but the close of the War of 1812 ushered in the greatest era of prosperity for the industry. By 1845 only New York, Boston and New Orleans of American ports exceeded New Bedford in tonnage. The production was greatest in that year, New Bedford whalers importing 158,000 bbls. of sperm oil, 272,000 bbls. of whale oil and 3,000,000 lb of whalebone. The beginning of Arctic whaling in 1848 marked a new step in the industry, and the tonnage was much increased. The highest point in capital, tonnage and vessels was reached in 1857, when New Bedford possessed 329 registered whaling ships, representing an investment of $12,000,000 and employing afloat and ashore 10,000 hands. From a succession of causes, of which the introduction of petroleum into general use as an illuminant was the chief, the industry began to decline from this time. The Civil War was a great blow to the whalers; 25 vessels were sunk by Confederate cruisers, entailing a loss of $1,650,000, and many more were bought by the government to be sunk at the entrances of southern harbours, or to be used as colliers or store ships.[1] In 1871 and 1876 many vessels were lost in the Arctic ice, involving losses of several millions. Still the industry survives on a comparatively small scale; in January 1909 there were 13 steamers and barks, 1 brig and 4 schooners, with an aggregate tonnage of 4710, employed, chiefly in sperm whaling, and the oil and whalebone product of 1908 was valued at about $350,000.

The prosperity that New Bedford lost with the decline of the whaling industry has been more than made up by the growth of the cotton spinning industry. In 1905 New Bedford ranked second among the cities of the United States in the manufacture of cotton goods (including cotton small wares), producing 5% of the total for the country; the speciality of the mills is the finer cotton goods. The first cotton mill, a five-storey stone structure, was built by Joseph Grinnell (1789-1885) and his associates in 1847, and began operations in the following year with 15,000 spindles and 200 looms. This was the beginning of the Wamsutta Mills, in 1907 comprising 8 buildings, 228,000 spindles and 4300 looms. In 1909 the city had some 50 mills, with a total of over 2,137,000 spindles. The value of cotton goods manufactured in 1905 was $22,411,936, or 76.1% of all manufactured products of New Bedford (in 1890 the product was $8,185,286; in 1900 $16,748,783). Among the city's other manufactures are tools, cordage and twine, boots and shoes, glass, oils, lubricants (notably black-fish oil, a lubricant for watches and clocks, of which almost the entire supply is manufactured here), mechanical toys, beer, ale, woollen and silk goods, and paints. The total value of all factory products was $23,397,491 in 1900 and $29,469,349 in 1905. There is an extensive commerce in coal, raw cotton, lumber and fish; the direct foreign trade is comparatively small — in 1909 the imports were valued at $542,995, and the exports at $34,473.

The site of New Bedford was visited in 1602 by the English navigator, Bartholomew Gosnold, who traded with the Indians at the mouth of the Acushnet or Acoosnet. It was originally part of the town of Dartmouth, which was occupied by settlers from Plymouth, who in 1652 purchased the land from Massasoit, Sachem of the Narragansets, and his son Wamsutta (called Alexander by the whites). About 1665 there was a considerable influx of Quakers, and members of this sect have always formed an important and influential element in the population. There were few settlers on the site of New Bedford until the middle of the 18th century, and there was no village, properly speaking, until 1760. The town was first called Bedford after Joseph Russell, one of the founders, whose family name was the same is that of the dukes of Bedford; and it was later called New Bedford to distinguish it from Bedford in Middlesex county. During the War of Independence the harbour became a rendezvous for American privateers; this led to an attack, on the 5th of September 1778, by a fleet and armed force under Earl Grey, which burned seventy ships and almost destroyed the town. In 1787 New Bedford was set off from Dartmouth and separately incorporated as a township; in 1812 the township of Fairhaven was separated from it. New Bedford was chartered as a city in 1847. Its first newspaper, the Marine Journal, was established in 1792. The Mercury, founded in 1807, now one of the oldest newspapers in continuous publication in the country, was for some time edited by William Ellery Channing (1818-1901). There are Portuguese and French weekly newspapers.

See Daniel Ricketson, History of New Bedford (New Bedford, 1858); Z. W. Pease and G. W. Hough, New Bedford (New Bedford, 1889); D. H. Kurd, History of Bristol County (Philadelphia, 1883); L. B. Ellis, History of New Bedford and its Vicinity 1602-1892 (Syracuse, N.Y., 1892); W. S. Tower, A History of the American Whale Fishery (Philadelphia, 1907); and The Old Dartmouth Historical Sketches (1903 seq.), published by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society.

  1. From New Bedford in November and December 1861 sailed the “Stone Fleet,” a flotilla of 45 whaling vessels collected by the Federal government and loaded with stone, most of which were sunk off Charleston and other harbours on the South Atlantic coast for the purpose of stopping blockade running.