Second Shift: New Bedford's Industrial and Immigrant Heritage

Listen closely and you might still hear the footsteps of the workers who tramped between their tenements and the textile mills. New Bedford is known mostly for its whaling past, but in the 19th century rolls of cloth overtook barrels of whale oil as the city’s primary commodity, and the city led the world in textile production.

In 1602, English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold recorded his observations of the area that would become New Bedford. By 1785, residents began to hunt local whales, “trying” their blubber into oil for use in candles, lamps, and lubrication. In 1841, Herman Melville shipped out from New Bedford on the whaler Acushnet. His experiences on the high seas became the inspiration for Moby Dick. In 1857, the city led the world in whaling with 329 ships employing 10,000 people.

In the 1840s, whaling investors began to shift their capital into textile manufacturing. Wamsutta Mills opened in 1849, and its success inspired other textile ventures between the 1870s and 1920s. New Bedford’s early mills employed experienced “operatives” from textile manufactories in Rhode Island, England, Scotland, and Ireland. As mills blossomed throughout the city, immigrants from French Canada, Portugal, and elsewhere fulfilled workforce needs. In addition to men, the mills employed thousands of women and children, and sometimes entire families went to work together.

By the 1850s, widespread overfishing led to the depletion of whales, forcing ships to travel further and stay out longer to make a profit. In 1871 and 1876, shifting ice trapped the Arctic whaling fleet, and thirty-four ships from New Bedford were lost. At the same time, petroleum-based products began to capture the market for commodities once made from whale oil and spermaceti.

While whaling was slowly dying, the textile industry flourished. The influx of workers to New Bedford required housing, and mill owners erected multi-family tenement buildings, two or three stories high, charging rent to their employees. By the end of the century, three-deckers, a form of worker housing unique to New England, dominated the streetscape of the north and south ends of the city, where the textile mills were concentrated. Between 1910 and 1915, New Bedford’s population reached 104,000 people, of whom 84% were first or second generation immigrants. The city led the nation with sixty-seven textile mills, and in 1910 alone there were applications for building permits for 290 triple-deckers.

The New England textile industry rode out many economic downturns. However, by the 1920s, mismanagement, outdated machinery, and lower wages and lower taxes in southern states caused many New Bedford mills to close or relocate. A six-month strike in 1928 was disastrous for mill owners and workers. By 1938, only thirty mills remained in New Bedford and production had dropped from its peak by 93%. Since then, the City of New Bedford has grappled with ongoing questions about the nature of its economy, the use of massive and empty mill buildings, and housing for the working poor.

The mills are mostly silent now, but their echoes remain in brick and stone mill edifices and in the rows of triple-deckers that line the streets in the former industrial areas of New Bedford.

Wamsutta Mills, 800 Acushnet Avenue

The building was five stories tall, of rough-hewn local granite, and about as long as the distance between streets in the older whaling center of town. A steam engine designed and built by Providence’s George H. Corliss powered ten thousand…

Alfred Beniot's House, 191 North Front Street (Demolished)

Alfred Beniot was one of many youths who spent their childhood laboring in the brutal, unforgiving mills of New Bedford. Born September 3, 1900, Alfred began working in 1912 as a floor sweeper but became skilled at repairing the looms that sustained…

Whitman Mills, 114 Riverside Avenue

A bit further inside the massive building shoppers found Food Mart, where their groceries were boxed and slid down rollers to be collected outside at street level. For many New Bedford residents, the memory of Mars Bargainland is still vivid, but few…

Manomet Mills, 194 Riverside Avenue

The complex eventually grew to include three buildings. Manomet 1 and 2 were connected by overhead bridges, now demolished. An extensive weave shed on the other side of Riverside Avenue has also been demolished. Manomet’s owner and President,…

Feast of the Blessed Sacrament Arch, 42 Madeira Avenue

Immigrants from the Portuguese islands of the Azores, Cape Verde, and Madeira first arrived in New Bedford as crew aboard whaling vessels, but their presence in the town was often transitory. By 1905, more than 7,000 immigrants from these islands…

Portuguese Feast Grounds, Madeira Avenue and Hathaway Street

New Bedford’s Feast of the Blessed Sacrament is the largest Portuguese Feast in the world and attracts 100,000 visitors to its festival grounds on Madeira Field each year. Now more than 100 years old, the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament was founded…

Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church, 124 Earle Street

The Diocese of Fall River founded Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church in 1909 to serve New Bedford’s growing Portuguese community in the North End of the city. The ethnic church offers Portuguese and English masses, and parishioners relish its…

Temple Landing, 285 Ash Street

To understand the full history of these bright new houses you must travel back half a century to the summers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the Civil Rights era, black residents of New Bedford increasingly voiced their discontent over high…

Bay Village, 134 – 238 Acushnet Avenue

Built from 1939 to 1941, Bay Village consisted of twenty-two brick buildings containing 197 multifamily units with one to four bedrooms. The sprawling nature of the complex evokes the post-World War II suburban housing boom more than the tightly…

Potomska Housing, 67 Rivet Street & 448 South Second Street

Built in 1871 on South Water Street, Potomska Mills produced shades, umbrellas, jeans, and print cloth, rather than the sheets and shirts produced at Wamsutta. Potomska was the first textile manufactory established after the Wamsutta Mills more than…

Berkshire Hathaway, 1-99 Harbor St. (Demolished)

In 1964, Buffet acquired shares in a failing New Bedford textile mill known as Berkshire Hathaway. His intent was to sell the shares back to the owners and make a tidy profit. His good business sense did not fail him. The owners of the mill, the…
This tour was produced by the students in the 2016 Brown University course, "Shrine, House, or Home: Rethinking the House Museum Paradigm." The students were Lena Bohman, Sean Briody, Ryan Cruise, Chelsea Fernando, Marjory O'Toole, Ryan Paine, and Jeremy Wolin. The instructor was Ron Potvin. Patrick Malone provided additional information and served as an advisor for this tour.

Four texts were indispensable in the research for this project: Kingston Wm. Heath, The Patina of Place: The Cultural Weathering of a New England Industrial Landscape (Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 2001); Joseph D. Thomas, et al, A Picture History of New Bedford: Volume One, 1602 – 1925, (Spinner Publications, 2013); Joseph D. Thomas, et al, A Picture History of New Bedford: Volume Two, 1925 – 1980 (Spinner Publications, 2016); The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, New Bedford Theme Issue, Vol. 40, Nos. 1 & 2 (2014).