New England on a Pedestal

108. A Whale of a Tale

November 28, 2022 Doug Farquharson Season 1 Episode 8
New England on a Pedestal
108. A Whale of a Tale
Show Notes Transcript

We take a look back at the long relationship between New England and the whaling industry.

I often develop ideas for this project from things friends mention to me in passing or from listening to other podcasts. Sometimes, ideas develop from things I read online or as is the case for this episode, a subject appears in the news. This one was in the news a lot the past several months. Or at least it was around here.


Hello and welcome to another episode of the New England on a Pedestal podcast. I am your host, Doug Farquharson. Thanks for joining us!

As I mentioned, whales have been popping up in my newsfeeds a lot lately. The good news is that in some cases more whales have been seen in certain areas than we usually do. And the bad news is that we are still finding endangered species becoming trapped in fishing gear and other debris that we’ve left polluting our waters. And in some cases, whale watchers and other boaters have gotten too close to the action and whales have collided with boats. Fortunately, neither human nor whale seem to have been injured in these encounters. But hey! They have made for some great videos!

Whales and New England have had a long history together. Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and the first third of the twentieth centuries, whaling was a huge industry along the seacoast of New England. The waters off Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, Buzzards Bay, Rhode Island, and Connecticut once teemed with a variety of whale species. Port cities rumbled with industries fueled by the whale trade. Hard men made their living hunting the behemoths while women raised their children and hoped not to become widowed. Factories processed the carcasses while railroads moved the many, many products derived from the whale. Sea shanties were song and novels were written about the whale and the men who went to sea to hunt them.

Today, other than the many whale watching cruises you can find in several port cities, the New England whaling industry is pretty much a thing of the past. Its memory is kept alive in several museums throughout the region and in statues and monuments all along the shorelines. Let’s take a look at some of them in this episode of New England on a Pedestal.

Let’s start by heading to New Bedford, Massachusetts and visit the Whaleman Statue at 613 Pleasant Street which houses the city’s public library. Sculpted by Bela Pratt, it was a gift to the city of New Bedford and was dedicated in 1913. This granite and bronze statue depicts a bare chested man riding in the bow of a stove boat crashing through the waves, harpoon raised and ready to strike at a whale. A city website states that the statue, and I quote “was erected in remembrance of the energy and fortitude, the toil and enterprise of the men who laid the foundation of the prosperity of this community. It is a tribute to the men who faced dangers, who grappled with difficulties, and who achieved success. Let us hope that in keeping alive the story of the past it may serve to inspire those of the future with confidence and courage to meet the perplexities and duties which await them.” End quote.  Pratt was born in CT and educated at Yale and in New York before spending many years in Paris. His local works include pieces at Boston’s Public Library, Harvard University, Boston’s Public Garden, and in Salem, Massachusetts. We will be taking looks at several of his other pieces in future episodes, particularly during Season two. Look to the other side of the front of the library and you’ll see a statue honoring Lewis Temple, an African American man who invented the toggle bolt harpoon which revolutionized the harpoons used in hunting the whale.

A year or so after the Whaleman, which is sometimes called The Harpooner, was debuted, another statue was dedicated to the area’s whalers. Sitting in Buttonwood Park, the Barnard Monument celebrates everything that the city brought to the nation and in fact to the world starting with the whale and those who hunt them. This monument made of local Quincy granite and bronze depicts not just whaling but also the other industries such as manufacturing that arose from byproducts of the whales. Standing atop the pedestal in bronze is a foundry worker with an anvil and assorted metalsmithing tools. The very large pedestal itself has several figures of workers carved into it including sailors and the women on shore. Quoting an engraving above their heads it reads “Dedicated as a tribute to the sturdy whalemen who won fame for New Bedford and their successors who inheriting ideals and resourcefulness gave to the city new prominence by creating a great manufacturing center.”

A more modern sculpture named Moby Dick can be found on MacArthur Drive by the Cuttyhunk Ferry Pier. It is by artist Donna Dobson and is inspired by Herman Melville’s famous book.  The sculptor submitted her work for 2015’s Seaport Art Walk. That year’s theme was “New Bedford Works.”  As I’ve noted a couple times, New Bedford’s residents were world renowned for working the whale trade. Many of them were immigrants from Cape Verde and Portugal. Melville sailed aboard the whaling ship “Acushnet” and his experience inspired him to write “Moby Dick.” Dobson has said of her creation, quote: “In celebration of Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, I wanted to create a sculpture of the novel’s hero. Melville was a brilliant writer. He created the Captain of the ship who sought revenge on the whale who had harmed him, not from malice, but from some animal instinct. I created an anthropomorphic sculpture in celebration of Melville’s humanistic whale.” End quote. The sculpture is a bit abstract but depicts a not to scale whale breaching the surface with its mouth open and pointed skyward. It has a more cartoonish appearance than a natural rendering. It also has the distinction of once being named the weirdest roadside attraction in Massachusetts by the online version of Readers Digest.


New Bedford is known as The Whaling City since in the 19th century it was considered the whaling capital of the world and was the richest city per capita worldwide. It is still known as America’s number one fishing port and derives much of its business from the sea and the people and vessels that call New Bedford home. For a treasure trove of information regarding the city and its whaling history visit the National Park Service’s Visitor’s Center. The park is interesting in that it covers multiple city blocks and highlights way more than just whaling.  Find out why New Bedford was known as the city that “lit the world!”

Over in New London, CT at the Shaw Mansion is a monument to the hard-working whalers of that port. It is a depiction of a caldron used to cook whale blubber and three harpoons form a triangle above it. Unfortunately, about a year or so ago, someone vandalized it.  I have not been able to determine if the damage has been repaired or not but most recent photos show what appears to be damage remaining there. On a more fun note, Conny has sat out front of the children’s museum in West Hartford CT for almost forty years. Conny is a sixty-foot sperm whale replica made from a combination of iron and concrete that visitors can climb through and even get sprayed by during the summer months from the blowhole high above.

An interesting find on the Roadside America website is in Greenville RI where along a stretch of Mapleville Road, you may notice a medium sized boulder jutting out from the side of the hill there. To take a quote from the website, “it has been painted to resemble a wonky eyed whale!” No, it is not a statue or monument, but it is a whale, so what the heck, let’s include it today! 

I had assumed, and you may too, that we’d only find whale statues in ocean side states, ones with a seashore. But we’d be wrong! What? Really? Yes, and let’s move up to Vermont to see what I mean. If you’ve driven on Interstate 89 between exits 12 and 13 near Burlington, you may have seen the Whale Tails. It’s actually a sculpture by Jim Sardonis named “Reverence.” In 1989 he created these 12 to 13 foot tall whale tails out of about thirty six tons of African black granite and is meant to symbolize the fragility of our planet. So why whales in Vermont? It turns out that back in the 19th century, workers constructing railroads uncovered the remains, well bones mostly of a beluga whale. It turns out that after the last Ice Age, the Champlain Valley was under water and was an extension of what was known as the Champlain Sea.  So, while we may not expect to see whales today in Vermont, they did once ply the waters that long ago covered the land there. Originally planned to be on display outside a project that was being built in Randolph, they were moved to their current location in 1999. A new, bronze pair have been recently installed back at the original location.

Since this sculpture was designed to make people think about the fragility of our planet and the changes it goes through over time whether naturally or by humankind’s hand, it seems like a good segue into this question. I was wondering if the damage to the New London sculpture was just kids messing around and something broke or was it deeper than that. Was someone upset about the plight of whales in general and how man over hunted them in the past, and in some cases, still do to this day? Was the damage deliberately done in some misguided protest? I don’t know the answer and I couldn’t find one in the admittedly small amount of research I did into it. But it brings up the question we see from time to time with other statues and monuments around the country. For instance, by today’s standards, the whaling industry of the past was way out of control and as a result decimated many species of whale, some to the point of extinction. It’s easy to blame them looking through the lenses of today’s knowledge, moral compasses, and experiences. But by viewing things from a historical perspective, it’s easier to see, if not understand, maybe not agree with, but at least have a clearer picture of what was happening at the time. For instance, the ships hauling whale carcasses, blubber, oil, etc into ports like New Bedford and New London employed thousands and brought wealth to many. In turn, other business and manufacturers hired even more workers who were able to provide for their families. Railroads carried the goods to other areas where more people went to work moving, storing, selling, buying, and processing them. Most of these statues and monuments were originally meant to showcase and celebrate the tenacity and hard work the people involved in the industry had to endure and triumph over to succeed and to build a fledgling nation into a world power. Maybe when viewing them in today’s world, we should take a moment to consider both their original intent and what they mean by today’s standards.

Those are some interesting things to ponder next time we gaze upon a seaside statue dedicated to a long ago industry and the people who lived and died for it. I guess this would be true of many of our older statues, wouldn’t it?

I often suggest a specific restaurant, or brewery right about here in the podcast, but that’s a little difficult this time around since we visited several New England states in the last few minutes. So, I guess I’ll just say, go try some good old fashioned fresh off the boat New England seafood! Personally, I favor a really good surf and turf platter washed down with a cold local craft beer.

I will, however, highly recommend you book yourself on a whale watching cruise. There are many many to choose from. In the Boston area, I’d suggest sailing from The New England Aquarium. I’ve taking a couple out of the Cape Ann area long ago and friends have sailed aboard charters from Cape Cod and the Islands. You are almost certainly guaranteed to spot several whales while out on the water. Planes will often spot pods of whales and direct the boats’ captains on where to sail. Be sure to bring a camera!

As we mentioned before in older episodes, the concept behind New England on a Pedestal is rather simple. Travel around our six-state area, find some interesting statues, and talk about them. Why not shoot us an email at and tell us about a favorite or unique or odd statue you know. Or if you have any additional information or perhaps a correction about something we have already shared, please send it along and I’ll add it into a later episode. Have a question? A suggestion? Email us at That’s New England on a Pedestal all one word at F A R Q I E dot com.  You can find us on Facebook and Instagram. Help us grow by recommending New England on a Pedestal to your friends and family. Tell a coworker. If you’d take a moment and subscribe to our podcast on whatever player you are using and leave review, that would really help us reach more listeners.

The New England on a Pedestal logo was designed by Natick artist Jason Cheeseman-Meyer. The theme music is by local musician Sam Checkoway and was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jake Checkoway.

Until next time, be safe, be well, and keep discovering.