Providence, R.I. — New England’s ports are reinventing themselves to compete with one another and from larger ones, but they were once legendary. From one of the world’s great whaling ports to the Navy’s first submarine base and the city featured in The Perfect Storm, here is a look at their lore:
Whaling in New Bedford
One of the world’s great whaling ports of the 19th century, New Bedford, Mass., became wealthy as its whaling fleet grew. The New Bedford fleet reached its peak in 1857, with 329 vessels employing more than 10,000 men, according to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The inspirational story of whalers attaining the American dream shaped the city and surrounding region, said James Russell, the museum’s president.
After petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, sperm whale oil was no longer in great demand for lighting. Confederate cruisers destroyed Yankee whalers during the Civil War. Many remaining whaling merchants moved to San Francisco to get to the western Arctic faster, since they could send their products east using the new transcontinental railroad.
Groton, Connecticut, is known as the “Submarine Capital of the World.”
In 1916, a naval yard and storage depot along the Thames River became the Navy’s first submarine base. It grew exponentially during World Wars I and II. The base was home to the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, which was launched in 1954. It’s now proudly displayed at the Submarine Force Museum next to the installation.
Almost every submariner is stationed at the base for training at least once, and the nation’s newest fast-attack submarines can regularly be seen gliding along the Thames. They’re built just 4 miles down the road at General Dynamics Electric Boat.
The Perfect Storm
Gloucester, Mass., was one of the earliest fishing ports in the country, if not the first, according to the Cape Ann Museum. A group of Englishmen, attracted by the deep waters and abundance of codfish, landed there in 1623 to fish and establish a settlement.
The city remained a fishing center as immigrants from Nova Scotia, Portugal and Sicily came to fish, but the industry declined through most of the 20th century because of overfishing and new regulations, the museum said.
In 1991, what became known as “The Perfect Storm” formed hundreds of miles east of Nova Scotia. Six crew members of the Andrea Gail, a sword-fishing boat from Gloucester, were lost at sea. Their story became the basis of a book that was turned into a blockbuster movie — and a part of the American lexicon.
One of Colonial America’s leading seaports, Newport became part of the infamous triangular trade.
Rum from Massachusetts and Rhode Island was shipped to Africa to be traded for slaves, who were taken to the West Indies to be traded for sugar and molasses. Some slaves were taken back to New England, along with the sugar and molasses to make rum.
Many Newport families owned slaves, and the city’s harbor teemed with trading ships, according to the Newport Historical Society.
The picturesque city later reinvented itself as a summer resort, attracting artists, writers and scientists, the historical society said. During the Gilded Age, elite families like the Vanderbilts built the mansions for which the city is now known, along with musical festivals and sailing.
Enslaved Africans aboard a Spanish ship, the Amistad, revolted in 1839, seizing it and sailing up the East Coast. The U.S. Navy captured the ship and forced it to dock in New London, Conn.
The slaves were jailed in New Haven, Conn., and began a long legal fight to win their freedom. Former President John Quincy Adams defended them, arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that they were free people who acted in self-defense.
He won the case, and they were freed.
Steven Spielberg depicted the famous rebellion in a 1997 movie, Amistad. A replica of the ship now serves as a symbol of America’s early anti-slavery movement.
The ship is spending this summer docked in New London, Conn.
A Port for Hollywood
The port of Mystic is known for a pizza parlor that helped launch Julia Roberts’ career.
After a few low-budget films, Roberts auditioned for Mystic Pizza and landed the role of a teenage waitress in Mystic, Conn. Screenwriter Amy Jones was inspired to write the story about life in a New England port community and the romantic misadventures of three waitresses while she was vacationing in the area.
Released in 1988, the movie became a cult classic. Roberts told The Associated Press in 1990, “None of us on that movie had really done very much. It was a chance to show somebody something.”
Mystic Pizza helped transform Mystic into a tourist destination. Roberts immediately went on to star in Steel Magnolias, then the smash success Pretty Woman. The rest is history.
Ports Of Maine
Maine has a rich maritime history.
Dockworkers, or longshoremen, have labored on the waterfront in Portland for more than 150 years. In Bath, shipbuilding has been a way of life since 1762, when the sailing ship Earl of Bute was launched, and the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard is located there now, according to the company.
Navy ships have been overhauled in Kittery, Maine, just across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, since 1800, when the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was established as a public shipyard.