Home » 1999 Road Trip to Boston Suburbs

New Bedford Whaling Museum, MA

Sunday, November 28, 1999 - 9:00am by Lolo
111 miles and 0.75 hours from our last stop


To get the most out of a visit to New Bedford, you really have to read Moby Dick, because this is where it took place. Even if you don't go to New Bedford, read the book anyway--it's a truly great one.

Boys in museumBoys in museumI was a little concerned about navigating our motorhome through New Bedford, especially after I had Herb drive down some very narrow cobblestone streets in Salem. He was experiencing some really bad back problems this trip, with sciatic pains shooting down his leg, so I didn't want to add to his stress with a Salem repeat. Fortunately, it wasn't too bad at all--perhaps because it was Sunday. Things were pretty quiet in the historic district of town, and we were able to find parking in a lot not too far from the Whaling Museum.

The Whaling Museum is really a great place to bring kids. Andrew and Tommy were 10 and 8 at the time, which was really a perfect age--still enthusiastic, yet old enough to understand a lot of what they were seeing. The museum is the largest one in America devoted to the history of the whaling industry and it has tons of interesting exhibits and displays.

Andrew's photo of gang in front of Seamen's BethelAndrew's photo of gang in front of Seamen's BethelWhen we first entered the museum, the kids made a beeline for a half-scale replica of a whaling bark named the Lagoda, which we were allowed to climb aboard and explore. Interactive exhibits, I find, are much more fun and rewarding for them than just looking at stuff. There was something for everyone at the museum. Herb's mother and I loved the beautiful scrimshaw and glass collection, as well as the beautiful prints and paintings depicting whaling scenes. Herb, who is a very avid sailor himself and often dreams of sailing around the world himself someday, enjoyed the Joshua Slocum exhibit. Joshua Slocum, for those less knowledgeable about sailing lore, was the first man to single-handedly sail around the world. In 1895, he set fail from Boston in his sloop-rigged fishing boat, the Spray, and returned to Newport 3 years later after having sailed 46,000 miles. Things like this really excite Herb. I, however, focused on the fact that 11 years later he set out once again in his beloved Spray and was never seen again.

The museum also has an interesting event called the Moby Dick Marathon. Every year on January 3rd (the anniversary of the day that Herman Melville set sail from New Bedford on the whaling ship Acushnet), a gentleman dressed in 19th century sailor garb, climbs aboard the deck of the Lagoda and shouts, "Call me Ishmael." That begins the 25-hour reading of the entire novel. It's even free. Someday, I really, really want to do this.

After the museum, we headed across the street to the Seamen's Bethel, which was the "Whaleman's Chapel" in Moby Dick. It was originally built in the 1830s as a way of trying to improve the morals of the sailors of New Bedford. Good luck. In any case, it was a tradition for these men to visit this chapel before heading out on a long voyage. The walls of the chapel are covered with black-frame cenotaphs, bearing the names of men who were lost at sea, both in the whaling age and in current times. By far the most interesting feature of this church is the pulpit, which is shaped like the bow of a ship. Melville describes this pulpit in detail in his book, but it was purely fictional. There was no bow-shaped pulpit in the real chapel. After years of disappointing visitors expecting to see the pulpit, one was finally constructed in 1961. The pew that Herman Melville sat in when he visited there is also marked with a plaque.

I think I'm going to reread Moby Dick when I get home.


New Bedford's claim to fame is that it is the setting of Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick. However, New Bedford is not just a fictional whaling port. During its heyday, it had as many as many as 400 whaling ships sailing the seas in search of highly lucrative whale oil. Several stops in New Bedford's historic waterfront highlights its historic past.

New Bedford Whaling Museum

Lolo and Tom on LagodaLolo and Tom on LagodaThe New Bedford Whaling Museum is the largest museum in America devoted to the history of the American whaling industry. Its seven buildings house the most extensive collection of art, artifacts, and manuscripts pertaining to the whaling era, which lasted from the late 1700s to the early 1900s.

Dominating the large gallery of the museum is the 89-foot, half-scale model of the whaling bark Lagoda, with sales set and fully rigged. Visitors are allowed to climb aboard and explore. Around the walls of the museum are old photographs and drawings explaining the whaling industry. Other rooms hold collections of whaling artifacts, dozens of paintings on whaling themes, and a beautiful collection of scrimshaw.

The museum is located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill in the heart of the Historic Waterfront District. It is open daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. Thursdays in the summer. It is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

Seamen's Bethel

Across the street from the museum is the Seamen's Bethel, which was immortalized as the "Whaleman's Chapel" in Moby Dick.

"In the same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman's Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot." - Herman Melville

In the early 1800s, the citizens of New Bedford were becoming increasingly concerned with the wild lifestyles of the 5,000 seamen that were employed at this port. The concerned citizens formed a group called the New Bedford Port Society, "dedicated to the moral and religious improvement of Seamen." To promote this good work, they constructed this church in 1832. It was traditional for seamen to visit the chapel before going out to sea.

After being damaged by a fire in 1866, the church was redesigned to give it the more church-like appearance you see today. A tower and vestibule were added and the interior seating was reversed to face west.

The most notable feature of the chapel is the pulpit shaped like a ship's bow. Although Melville described a pulpit like this in Moby Dick, it did not exist at the time of his writing. The current bow-shaped pulpit was constructed in 1961 to satisfy the many visitors to the Bethel that were expecting to see one.

Along the walls of the chapel are 31 black-frame cenotaphs, bearing the names of men who were lost at sea, both in the whaling age and in current times. The pew that Herman Melville sat in during his visit to the chapel in 1840 is marked with a plaque.

New Bedford Whaling Museum location map

Javascript is required to view this map.