Life in an old whaling port
Old whaling ports can be fun to visit and a good place to live.
By Les Chrisite, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - You can't call me Ishmael, but I can imagine myself as a Melville character when I walk down a 19th century street in an old New England whaling port.

The venerable buildings that were put up when the town bustled with the business of processing whale oil have the power to evoke the memories of that demanding but extremely profitable era. Whalers from these cities went forth for voyages that lasted for many months, even years, and covered tens of thousands of miles.

The last whaler -- The Charles W. Morgan
The last whaler -- The Charles W. Morgan
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Some of the whaling ports were among the wealthiest cities of their age. When the industry faded out, the large impressive homes, solid government buildings, and impressive mercantile and small manufacturing centers didn't just dry up and blow away, but they often lapsed into a kind genteel dormancy, like brick and mortar Blanche DuBoises.

Many of these towns have since salvaged some of their splendid buildings and recycled the towns for tourism or other uses. Others have never fully recovered from the industry's collapse. (See whaling-town homes.)

End of an era

A combination of factors ended the era of whaling: sperm whales numbers fell, necessitating longer and more expensive voyages; the proliferation of the industrial age, which demanded an ever larger pipeline of lubricants to run, a pipeline that the whale oil industry couldn't keep up with; and, especially, the founding of the nation's petroleum industry, which was kicked off with the discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859.

The great whaling ports went into decline. New Bedford, the biggest one of all, has never fully recovered its former glory. Nantucket, by virtue of its peerless position, 35 miles out to sea, physical beauty and mild climate, came back as a tourist Mecca.

There were some 70 ports that whaling ships sailed from during the golden age of whaling from about 1784 to 1860. Many don't retain much of the infrastructure from those years, but others have a large proportion of the old buildings still standing.

Whaling towns can be great places to visit; it's fun discovering wonderful old houses or store fronts that once held rope works, ship's chandlers or cooper shops. The residential areas often retain many of the elegant homes built by oil wealth. And some of the whaling ports honor their history with fascinating museums of whaling.

These towns can also make excellent places to live. Many of the homes may contain details unaltered by a modernity that passed the town by. And the proximity to water can yield treasures in the form of exquisite ocean views, recreation and seafood restaurants.

So, for a trip back in time, consider a voyage to a whaling town and imagine yourself about to embark on, or perhaps returning from, a two-year journey to the hunting grounds of the South Pacific, chasing and subduing a 60 ton leviathan and reducing the beast to a few dozen barrels of oil and some clean-burning, pleasant scented candles.

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