Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last. -- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.
Such was the view Herman Melville witnessed from his time in New Bedford, Massachusetts. And while that sea-salt-soaked view doesn't remain today, it can live on in our imaginations.
Books can take us on adventures to places we never thought possible. Through Melville's Moby-Dick one can travel the mid-19th Century world's oceans and return to a tiny East Coast seaport once viewed as one of the region's, if not the world's, richest towns. From the tight, unkempt confines of the fictional Spouter-Inn to the high seas as viewed from the rolling deck of the Pequod, Melville takes the reader on a globe-navigating trek complete with a literary biopic of the whaling industry.
Indeed, your imagination can run a bit wild during a visit to New Bedford. While Moby-Dick was a work of fiction, parts were pulled from tiny New Bedford, whose maritime heritage lives on not just in its seaport but through New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. And in a fitting turnabout, some of the author's inventions were later borrowed by New Bedford.
For instance, whereas Melville found inspiration in the sermons delivered at the Seamen's Bethel that still stands (though he dubbed it the Whalemen's Chapel in his novel), the prow-shaped pulpit he writes of didn't materialize in the bethel until after the arrival of the 20th Century, according to National Park Service historians who wrote, Safely Moored at Last: Cultural Landscape Report for New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park.
Safely Moored is a maritime history lover's comfort food, as it runs through more than three centuries of nautical and whaling history that evolved from New Bedford's wharves and cobblestone back streets. You still can walk those streets and still explore the Seaman's Bethel, where you can even set for a while in the very pew that Melville claimed.
Across the street from the bethel you'll find the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which is purported to be the world's best on the topic. As a bonus, the museum also houses the Melville Society's library and archives.
Despite this rich and well-worn history, the National Park Service did not drop anchor in New Bedford until this date in 1996, when an oversight -- until then, no NPS property commemorated the role of whaling in American history (although it is touched upon at Cape Cod National Seashore) -- was corrected by creation of the historical park.
The park is not large by any stretch of the imagination, covering just 13 downtown blocks, and parking can be a challenge during the height of summer. But it and the town of New Bedford combine to present a hefty slice of America's nautical history, one that shouldn't be underestimated.
True, you won't find the Acushnet, which was the whaler that Melville actually shipped out on back on January 1, 1841. But you will find Massachusetts' official ship, the century-old schooner Ernestina, as well as the Rotch-Jones-Duff House, which William Rotch Jr., had built in 1834 with his whaling income. This elegant home, with its ornate strolling gardens, didn't go unnoticed by Melville during his days in New Bedford.
"... nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford... all these brave houses and flowery gardens... "
Traveler tip: If you've got a long, long, long roadtrip on your horizon and are really interested in cetology, rent, buy, or download the unabridged Moby-Dick and you'll learn more than you ever imagined about whales and whaling.