As the New Bedford Whaling Museum breaks ground on a $6.5 million expansion that began May 20, a more-modest $2 million proposal to create a fishing museum connecting the nearby Mariner’s Home and Seamens’ Bethel is being pursued.
Unlike the more glamorous history of the whaling industry documented in books such as “Moby Dick,” the fishing industry has never truly been honored in the city for its historic value, says Frederick Toomey, president of the New Bedford Port Society. Yet, it has been a staple of the city and region for centuries, he said.
Apart from the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Mass., Toomey said, the society knows of no other place that the East Coast fishing industry, which predates the whaling industry, is recognized.
“Because of our location, and closeness to the sea, this was a natural harbor for cod fish [and] a valuable place for our fishermen. Indians all taught the colonists how to fish and it developed from that,” Toomey said.
The plan is to install a glass-enclosed elevator and walkway in the rear of the Mariner’s Home, which would provide access to both buildings without diminishing the historical character of the existing structures.
Joseph Booth, principal of JM Booth & Associates Inc., has produced a rendering for the addition that would connect the two buildings.
“The fishing industry has been one of the richest in the world and still is,” said Booth. “Nobody seems to understand that. It’s one of the more important aspects to the city.”
The proposed museum, dubbed the New Bedford Fishermen’s Heritage Center, would not just honor fishermen, but associated trades, including that of “lumper,” said James Dwyer, 69, who worked in this capacity for most of his life.
A lumper offloads fish and scallops for the commercial fleet, and used to go to auctions where the fishermen’s union would list species on a board to be sold off for pennies a pound, said Dwyer. He’s a former secretary treasurer for the Fish Lumpers Union Local 1749 of the International Longshoreman Association, and recently returned to work as a lumper, he said.