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Loss of the Historic Baker-Robinson Whale Oil Refinery Rankles Officials at New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
New Bedford, Massachusetts, the New England port city that once served as the epicenter of the world’s whaling industry, has a wonderful whaling-themed national park. However, not all of the significant relics of the city’s whaling past have been placed under the park’s protection. The recent loss of a historic whale oil refinery in New Bedford serves as a harsh reminder that historic preservation is typically subject to marketplace rules.
Small wonder that New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park attracted nearly 280,000 visitors last year. As the only National Park System unit commemorating America’s whaling industry and its important contribution to the nation’s history, the park does a remarkable job of preserving and interpreting the finest collection of whaling-era sites and relics still in existence. A visit to this park mentally transports you back to the day when whale oil was liquid gold and no port on earth, not even the fabled Nantucket, sent more whaling ships to sea (or made more money from the enterprise) than New Bedford. The first whaling vessel was launched at New Bedford in 1767, and by 1851 there were 474 New Bedford-registered whaling vessels plying the world’s oceans.
Whaling may be a cruel business by contemporary standards, but it sure was lucrative. During New Bedford’s mid-19th century whaling heyday, a time when New Bedford was “the city that lit the world,” boosters humbly dubbed the place the richest city on earth. Proof of this is still evident in the many impressive Greek Revival- and Federal-style homes, commercial buildings, and public buildings surviving from the era.
Demand for whale oil plummeted after the Civil War as kerosene lamps and coal gas lighting became widely available. Traditional whaling went into rapid decline, eventually giving way to a modern whaling industry employing factory ships in the harvest of whales (50,000 a year as recently as the 1930s) for meat, fine lubricating oils, margarine ingredients, and other specialty products. New Bedford’s whaling industry struggled along for decades until its last viable remnants folded in the 1920s.
While economic progress and the ravages of time and neglect have erased many structures and sites intimately associated with the historic whaling industry, New Bedford has retained enough of its historic character to make it obvious how the “River of Time” has flowed through the community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the New Bedford Historic District, an 11+ city-block area situated just west of the city’s waterfront in what was the city’s whaling-era downtown. Designated a National Historic landmark in 1966, the district formed the core of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park when it was established in 1996.
If you visit the 34-acre park today, you will find much to admire and learn from historic sites and structures such as:
• The U.S. Customhouse (1836), a public building designed in the impressive Greek Revival style that was prevalent in the city during the whaling era. Remarkably, it is still in use as the nation’s oldest purpose-designed port of entry facility.
• The Mechanics' Bank and Merchants' Bank Building (1831), the district’s first Greek Revival commercial building.
• Seamen’s Bethel (1832; rebuilt & expanded, late 1860s), a clapboard church made famous by mention in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (He called it “Whalemen’s Chapel.”)
• The Samuel Rodman Candlehouse (1810), a stucco-covered stone structure that is one of the historic district’s oldest commercial buildings.
• The Mariner’s Home (1790), a Federal-style building originally constructed as a private home and then moved to its present site. It has survived as the historic district’s oldest structure.
• The Old Third District Courthouse (1835), a Greek Revival gem that was constructed as a bank, became a courthouse in 1896, was later recycled for retail sales (antiques, auto parts), and now serves as the park’s visitor center.
• The Ernestina, a 120-ton schooner launched in 1896. Though never used for whaling, the Ernestina (former Effie M. Morrissey) compiled an enviable record in Grand Banks fishing, Arctic exploration, trans-oceanic passenger service, and other uses. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990, and now the only surviving Gloucester-built fishing vessel of its type, the storied ship is still used for educational cruises along the New England coast.
Situated across the street from Seamen’s Bethel is the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Although this long-established institution (1903) does not belong to New Bedford National Historical Park, it is an important partner site. The museum, which is owned and operated by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, played an important role in getting the park established. Today it continues to entertain and educate visitors with 200,000 whaling artifacts and related exhibits, including an extensive art collection, numerous whaling-related products and furnishings, around 3,000 pieces of scrimshaw, some 2,500 whaling voyage logbooks, and the largest model whale ship in existence.
One relic structure that the park and historic district does not have, and never will have, is the Baker-Robinson whale oil refinery. What a shame. When New Bedford’s whaling industry was in full swing, the huge cauldrons, powerful hydraulic presses, and other equipment at the Baker-Robinson Oil Works used sperm whale oil and spermaceti to make candles, lubricants, lamp oil, and other products that were internationally praised for their exceptional purity and quality.
The glory days were not to last, of course. After its useful life as a refinery ended nearly a century ago, the building was recycled as an ice house and a fish-processing facility for a pet food manufacturer. Eventually, it was abandoned and fell into serious disrepair. Now the gray-granite Greek Revival structure, which dates to the late 1830s, is only a gutted shell, having been recently cleaned out to the load-bearing walls for a renovation that will transform it into a 150-seat conference center for a new five-story, 106-room Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites.
Although the historic refinery was not included within the park’s authorized boundaries, the National Park Service and its municipal, corporate, and NGO partners had hoped to get the go-ahead, funding, and other wherewithal needed to acquire the property and preserve its historic interior. The deal couldn’t be put together, however, and it was clearly only a matter of time before the property would be redeveloped. The old refinery building occupies a prime site, being located on the main arterial connecting Interstate 195 to the waterfront and situated directly across from the historic Bourne Counting House at Merrill's Wharf.
Though the loss of the Baker-Robinson whale oil refinery may seem like a tragic episode, at least in the context of New Bedford National Historical Park and the city of New Bedford, it’s hard to identify bad guys. New Bedford planners make the plausible argument that not every historical building (even manifestly significant ones) can be preserved, and also point out that civic leaders serve the best interests of the community when they promote projects that create jobs and tax revenues. Lafrance Hospitality, the developer, argues that the corporation has not only operated with the city’s legal sanction, but also in the best interests of its clients and shareholders. The intangibles of historic preservation have always had a hard time standing up to arguments like that.
There’s no getting around the fact that the old whale oil refinery was in terrible shape and would have been extremely expensive to restore. When push came to shove, this historically significant vestige of the whaling era wasn’t gutted because city leaders failed to appreciate its historic value, or because an unprincipled developer pulled a fast one, but rather because the money needed to rescue it was simply not available.
Critics insist that the refinery’s original windows, doors, and shutters should have been preserved, and that more consideration should have been given to saving the massive brick hearth that held the rendering cauldrons. The developer says that an extra half-million dollars was voluntarily spent to preserve the old building’s shell instead of demolishing it, and that interior features such as the brick hearth, press components, and wooden wainscoting could not be readily incorporated into the interior redesign of the hotel conference center.
Some artifacts from the old refinery, including bricks from the hearth, were saved for exhibit in the park, which also has a partial video record of the building’s interior as it appeared before the structure was gutted.
With the removal of all but the walls and the roof of the venerable structure, further debate on the preservation issue was rendered moot. The new hotel, which has been under construction since last August, is scheduled to open in June. The interior renovation of the conference center is slated to begin this fall.
Postscript: On December 30, 1840, Moby Dick author Herman Melville was signed to the crew of a New Bedford-registered whaling ship, the square-rigged, 359-ton Acushnet. Just four days later, the Acushnet was outward bound for the Pacific. Melville spent the next 18 months at sea gaining firsthand knowledge of whaling. When he wrote Moby Dick ten years later, it’s clear that Melville drew heavily on his experiences in New Bedford (see especially chapters 2-13) and aboard the Acushnet.