New Bedford's Heydays
When I began my research in 2016, the city of New Bedford was still struggling to recover from years of economic decline. Thus it was difficult to imagine life in the city at the end of the nineteenth century. Affluence, high society, highly respected businessmen and a robust economy in transition were all in evidence in this city at that time.
Commerce in New Bedford, Massachusetts was primarily centered around whaling from the early to mid 1800's. With a population of approximately 20,000 in the 1850’s, New Bedford had one of the highest concentrations of wealth in America. The size of the New Bedford whaling fleet peaked in 1857 with 329 vessels sailing from the harbor valued at more than $12 million. During this time period, the whaling industry employed more than 10,000 men.
At a time when it cost $20,000 to $30,000 to launch a single whaling venture, the average farm was only worth $2,500 and the average manufacturing firm was valued at $5,000! Wise businessmen, many of them Quakers, witnessed the early decline of whale oil usage in the late 1800’s. This decline coincided with the discovery of crude oil in Pennsylvania. These savvy investors soon began steering the city towards industrialization and by the early nineteen hundreds, New Bedford became the fourth largest cloth manufacturing community in New England. *1
The economic prosperity derived principally from those two industries abounded. Elegant Victorian mansions, many of them still visible today, reflected the affluence and financial success of businesses in the city during this time period. Extravagance was on display in home design, home decor, the utilization of imported marble from Italy, decorative hand carved woodwork and European master craftsmen brought stateside for construction.
The elegant 97 acre Buttonwood Park was commissioned and designed in 1895 by Charles Elliott, a landscape architect and partner of the famous Olmsted, Olmstead & Elliott architectural firm of Boston. *2 Horse and carriage trails connected today’s historic area of New Bedford to the new park. Buttonwood Park, named for the native eastern sycamore trees found onsite, was designed for recreation during a period when the city’s affluent population found the time to relax and enjoy life.
The success of this city made it a place to be and to be seen. Boston newspapers frequently reported on social, political and sporting activities in the city of New Bedford.
An upper level of society with newfound leisure time evolved in New Bedford around the same time that the game of golf’s popularity was rising in America. The first golf course in New Bedford was conceived to cater to these very residents on the outskirts of the old city.