In 1847, a building without precedent in New Bedford began to rise north of the harbor in a grassy field along the banks of the Acushnet River.
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 spindles, which began producing cotton goods in 1849. As the city’s first successful large-scale textile mill, Wamsutta set the standard for those that followed.
Wamsutta Mills became known for its production of top quality cotton shirting and sheeting. Business thrived, and in 1853, Wamsutta built a second mill adjacent to the first, followed in 1862 by Wamsutta 3. Production declined during the Civil War due to labor and material shortages, but the company added a fourth mill in 1870. Wamsutta 4 was powered by another Corliss steam engine, the largest of its kind in the world. When the company added Wamsutta 5, the engine doubled in size, surpassing the famous steam engine that Corliss provided to power Machinery Hall during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
By 1892, Wamsutta owned seven mills and was the largest cotton-weaving factory in the world. Five years later, it operated more than four-thousand looms and employed more than two-thousand workers. By the mid-1920s, Wamsutta updated its facilities from steam power to electric and refurbished its machinery. When the Great Depression struck the nation in 1929, more than two-dozen textile mills closed in New Bedford. Wamsutta, however, managed to survive and thrive throughout World War II. The company adapted its product line to include items needed for the war effort: uniforms, hot air balloons, gas mask material, and canvas supplies.
Wamsutta closed in 1958 when the company’s owners relocated its operations and much of its equipment to South Carolina to take advantage of cheaper labor costs. In 2006, Wamsutta Mills 4 & 5 were redeveloped as loft-style apartments. Many other Wamsutta structures remain including Wamsutta 6, a weave shed, the mill pond that provided water for steam engines, and an historic ice house and weave shed.