New Bedford Waterfront 1980 - Nicholas Whitman Commercial Photography

New Bedford Waterfront, circa 1980

You can’t see what’s gone.

This place had been the epicenter of global whaling which was an enterprise as important to 19th century America as the energy industry is to us today. New Bedford prospered mightily. The waterfront was completely industrialized. Piers jutted into the harbor. Some had commercial buildings on them. On shore were the multitudes of services needed to support a fleet of hundreds of whaleships. But by 1880 it was all over. Whales were hunted to commercial extinction. Oil flowed from under the ground. The remnants of the fleet rotted at the piers. Acres of whale oil casks were replaced by piles of coal. Coal was for steamships, heat, electricity generation and for the massive mills that now dominated the north and south ends of the city. But changing times and the irresistible Great Depression humbled the city. Then WWII and the aftermath revived all manner of manufacturing. Again, the city rode a wave of prosperity. The future belonged to cars and trucks. Embracing this future meant crushing the past. A crumbling waterfront harkening back to the time of sail stood in the way of progress.

In the 1960s urban renewal swept through many cities. In New Bedford, businesses and neighborhoods adjacent to the waterfront were demolished to make way for a highway connector to the interstate. For some, this was a tragedy. Efforts began in earnest to save what survived by creating awareness and appreciation for city’s badly-torn historical fabric.

Meanwhile, down at the docks, piers were rebuilt in the efficient spirit of the highway to which they now connected directly. Buildings, boats and piers of wood were replaced with steel. Steel-stern trawlers superseded wooden-side trawlers. Longer range and technical innovations (such as improved electronics) meant bigger catches. Cod, haddock, flat-fish and scallops were the catch. Fish were auctioned, off-loaded, processed, and sent up Route 18 to market. The industry boomed.

Aftershocks continued to reverberate from the 60s highway construction. While the working waterfront was severed from the city by the highway, in the historic district buildings were jockeyed around to reconstruct the mauled 19th century city into a place good people dearly hoped would attract tourists. Hangouts like the Pequot Bar, which had colonized the ornate Citizens National Bank building, were sent packing and sanitized into fancy restaurants. Streets and sidewalks were rebuilt to look old again.

It is now some 35 years since this series was made. The historic district hosts an Urban National Park. Those bigger, better steel boats decimated the groundfish. Scallops are now the principal fishery, earning the port of New Bedford the highest value catch in the nation.

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