The Town Where Moby-Dick Began

"Smoking Chimneys," or "The End of Whaling," by Clement Nye Swift (1846-1918). The old whaler is sitting next to a derelict whaleboat, apparently in Fairhaven. Across the Acushnet River, we can see New Bedford's textile mills. The painting was a recent gift to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

“Smoking Chimneys,” or “The End of Whaling,” by Clement Nye Swift (1846-1918). The old whaler is sitting next to a derelict whaleboat, apparently in Fairhaven, Mass. Across the Acushnet River, we can see New Bedford’s textile mills. The painting was a recent gift to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Courtesy, New Bedford Whaling Museum

On yet another trip to New Bedford, Mass., I crossed the Fish Island Bridge and explored Fairhaven. It’s a lovely town, with broad, shady avenues and a long row of shipyards and fishing wharves along the Acushnet River. In 1841 Herman Melville sailed from the old seaport on the whale ship Acushnet. He later drew on his experiences during that voyage to write his masterpiece Moby-Dick. 

Today Fairhaven’s fishing fleet is smaller than New Bedford’s, but a sizable number of rugged-looking scallop draggers and swordfish and tuna boats rested at the town’s wharves when I was there.

I was interested in Fairhaven because William F. Nye resided in the city in the 19th century. He was the founder of the New Bedford whale oil company that established a bottlenose dolphin fishery at Hatteras Island, here in North Carolina, in the early 1900s.

While I was in Fairhaven, I toured the old neighborhood where William F. Nye used to reside.

The William F. Nye Co., Fish Island, New Bedford, Mass., ca. 1900. Courtesy, the New Bedford Whaling Museum

The William F. Nye Co., New Bedford, Mass., ca. 1900. Courtesy, the New Bedford Whaling Museum

I stopped by the company’s headquarters, too. Now called Nye Lubricants, Inc.the company is still in business after more than 150 years. The company moved its oil refinery across the river and into Fairhaven in the 1920s, and it’s been there ever since.

The company still produces highly specialized lubricating oils, but nowadays they’re synthetic, not refined from the oils found in whales, dolphins, seals, sea elephants and walruses like they used to be.

The company’s chief operating officer greeted me warmly and generously took time out of a busy day to talk with me.

The  firm’s early records apparently burned years ago, but he gave me a copy of a company history that I later found very useful. It was published as part of the company’s 125th anniversary.

The William F. Nye Co's refinery, Fish Island, New Bedford, Mass., ca. 1900. Prior to opening its bottlenose dolphin fishery at Hatteras Island, N.C., the company relied heavily on mass stranding of pilot whales and other blackfish in southern New England. Courtesy, New Bedford Whaling Museum

The William F. Nye Co’s refinery, New Bedford, Mass., ca. 1900. Prior to opening its bottlenose dolphin fishery at Hatteras Island, N.C., the company relied heavily on mass strandings of pilot whales and other blackfish in southern New England. Courtesy, New Bedford Whaling Museum

He also showed an appreciation for my historical research on the company’s outpost at Hatteras Island that I wasn’t sure I’d find. I thought he might feel anxious about the scholarly article I intended to write and the publicity it might give what many would consider a dark chapter in our nation’s history—the wholesale slaughter of whales and dolphins and other sea mammals.

But that’s not the sense I got at all: I think he considered it wholly right and good that the days of the whaling industry has passed, but he saw his company’s place in its history as notable and worth remembering, as do I.

He also reminded me: before the Age of Petroleum, whale oil made New Bedford rich, lubricated the spindles, turbines and railroad engines that built industrial America, and lit the city streets of the world.

The Millicent Library

When I was in Fairhaven, I also walked to the Millicent Library.  It is the town’s public library, and I can’t remember visiting a more beautiful library.

The Millicent Library, Fairhaven, Mass. Courtesy, the Millicent Library

The Millicent Library, Fairhaven, Mass. Courtesy, the Millicent Library

Its architecture is striking. The design and construction reminded me of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, though of course the Millicent Library is much smaller. But both were built in a similar, rather eclectic regional style of Romanesque revivalism. It’s unusual, but strikingly graceful and airy. On a sunny day, you feel bathed in light when you’re inside.

In 1893 a wealthy industrialist from Fairhaven, Henry Huttleston Rogers, donated the library to the town.

Rogers was one of the founders of Standard Oil. The Nye family, especially William F. Nye’s son Joseph, had close business and social ties to him.

Rogers built the library in honor of his daughter Millicent, who died of heart failure in 1890 at the age of only 17.

It’s a lovely memorial to her: full of grace and light and learning.

Photo by Andrew Ryder (flickr)

Photo by Andrew Ryder (flickr)

The library’s holdings also proved helpful to my historical research. The local history room included an excellent collection of newspaper clipping files arranged by proper names and subjects that I could not have found anywhere else.

A librarian guided me to several thick files on William F. and Joseph K. Nye, the latter having inherited the company after his father’s death in 1910. The largest part of the clippings came from a local newspaper, the Fairhaven Star, but I also found interesting articles from other regional newspapers.

The files confirmed much of what I already knew about the Nyes, but they also gave me new insights into William F. Nye’s early years in Fairhaven and his decision to establish a bottlenose dolphin fishery 500 miles south at Hatteras Island.

The library’s files also provided historical context that turned out to be fundamental to understanding New Bedford at that time.  They highlighted, for instance, the strong ties between the country’s dying whale oil business and the up-and-coming petroleum business in the late 19th century.

You can learn more about the William F. Nye Co.’s bottlenose dolphin fishery at Hatteras Island in an article that I wrote for the North Carolina Historical Review in January 2015. It’s called “Of Time and the Sea: Nye’s Clock Oil and the Bottlenose Dolphin Fishery at Hatteras Island, North Carolina, in the Early Twentieth Century.”

If you’re in North Carolina, your local public library should carry the North Carolina Historical Review. You should also be able to find the NCHR at major university libraries anywhere in the U.S. You can also find it at JSTOR, if you have access, or you can order a copy directly from the Historical Review’s offices in Raleigh.

Millicent Library, Fairhaven, Mass. Photo by Andrew Ryder (flickr)

Millicent Library, Fairhaven, Mass. Photo by Andrew Ryder (flickr)

That article was the result of my research in New Bedford and Fairhaven, as well as at other libraries, archives and museums. You can read about another aspect of my research for that article elsewhere on this blog.

That piece focuses on two days that I spent at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. You can find a link to it here.

A Second Home

I don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity to return to New Bedford, but I must confess that the old seaport has come to feel a little bit like a second home.

I think my historical research on the region’s connection to the North Carolina coast has helped me to feel closer to the city. As only an occasional visitor, I know that I usually see only the surfaces of things when I am there, though I think I see at least a little more deeply every trip.

But by knowing one aspect of New Bedford’s history more profoundly–  I mean this knowledge of the William F. Nye Co., the city’s whale oil business and its influence on Hatteras Island– somehow I feel closer to and more intimately connected with the place and its people.

I do look forward to going back one day. I can’t wait to walk in Herman Melville’s footsteps again and think about Moby-Dick. I’m impatient to wander among the scallop dredgers and those tough-looking steel-hulled trawlers.

And of course my mouth waters at the thought of enjoying Portuguese delicacies such as the whole rabbit and fava bean stew that I had on my last trip.

When that day comes, I will also light a candle again for my father at St. Anthony of Padua. And while I am in the neighborhood, I will walk down the street to Lydia’s and get a cup of thick dark coffee and a pasteis de nata or a malassada. 

I’ll visit the whaling museum again, and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and I’ll look forward to seeing what wonderful things the New Bedford Historical Society has done to remember history’s forgotten souls since my last trip.

And of course I will return to the  Millicent Library, where the light comes through the upper windows, 40 feet above the reading room floor, all is airy and luminous, and you feel as if you have discovered a tranquil refuge in a world that these days so often seems bent toward chaos.

Courtesy, New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Whaler’s scrimshaw, made from a sperm whale’s tooth, probably mid-19th century. Courtesy, New Bedford Whaling Museum.

 

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