The industrial evolution of the Port of New Bedford in photos

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — The Port of New Bedford, Massachusetts has transformed itself many times in the past, adapting to change in order to survive and thrive. Today, in addition to being America’s number one fishing port by catch value, it has positioned itself to become a leader in offshore wind energy due to its infrastructure and assets.

During an online curator talk on September 22, 2020, Michael P. Dyer, New Bedford Whaling Museum Curator of Maritime History, will use historical photographs from the Whaling Museum’s archives to take participants on a trip through time, from the waning days of whaling to the rise of coal and manufacturing industries, and on to the demise and re-birth of the mills.

The photographs are featured in the Inside Out! outdoor exhibition The River and the Rail: The Industrial Evolution of the Port of New Bedford, opening September 17. This live online event begins at 6:00 p.m. and is free to attend, but registration is required. Details and registration information are available at

The historical photographs reveal some of the changes seen along the New Bedford waterfront from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. By 1890, large schooners, barges and steamers, carrying coal, cotton and lumber, were replacing whale ships on New Bedford’s waterfront. As whaling declined, the industry left valuable infrastructure in its wake: wharves and a railroad. Coal was becoming the primary energy source used to power growing manufacturing facilities, including textile mills and other heavy industry.

Millions of feet of cotton textiles were shipped to market via rail, and millions of tons of coal moved through the port to feed textile mills and, by the early 20th century, to heat homes. Mills began to close in the 1960s, coal storage structures or pockets disappeared, and the railroad stopped running.

While the train tracks remain, there is no evidence of the coal industry in New Bedford today, and the gigantic mills are being torn down or re-purposed as the port once again adapts to change.

The exhibition The River and the Rail: The Industrial Evolution of the Port of New Bedford is part of the Whaling Museum’s Inside Out! series of rotating outdoor exhibitions on the Museum’s plaza at the corner of Johnny Cake Hill and William Street in New Bedford, Mass. Inside Out! The River and the Rail will be on view daily, free of charge, September 17- September 30, 2020. The Whaling Museum’s galleries are open Wednesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m. Details are available at

Featured photo: Around 1900, New Bedford photographer Joseph G. Tirrell (1840-1907) climbed to the top of the smokestack of the Union Street Railway Company Electric Power Station and took this photograph looking north toward Wamsutta Mills, capturing the city in mid-transition.

About the New Bedford Whaling Museum

The New Bedford Whaling Museum ignites learning through explorations of art, history, science and culture rooted in the stories of people, the region and an international seaport. The cornerstone of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Museum is located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill in the heart of the city’s historic downtown. The Museum is operating on reduced hours due to the corona virus pandemic. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is free for Museum members and children ages three and under; adults $19, seniors (65+) $17, students (19+) $12, child and youth $9. For more information visit

About the Port of New Bedford

The New Bedford Harbor Development Commission (HDC) was created by the Massachusetts General Court to govern the Port of New Bedford under Chapter 762 of the Acts of 1957. The HDC houses the New Bedford Harbormaster and is responsible for managing commercial and recreational vessel activities over all the waters within New Bedford. The crucial day-to-day operations and decision making is the responsibility of the HDC staff headed by an Executive Director. The HDC manages all City-owned waterfront property, including Homer’s, Leonard’s, Steamship, Coal Pocket, and Fisherman’s Wharves, as well as a 198-slip recreational marina at Pope’s Island and 19 real estate assets. The HDC also assigns moorings and enforces rules regarding use of piers, wharves, and adjacent parking areas under its jurisdiction, and issues permits for harbor events and for use of city-owned waterfront facilities.