The Whaling City revisited

From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell — Photo courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

Six-acre Palmer’s Island is just north of the hurricane barrier that protects New Bedford Harbor. The tiny, low-lying speck of sand and ledge has a rich and sometimes rollicking history, owing in part to the establishment in 1848 of a lighthouse on its northernmost tip. Palmer’s Island Light marked the west edge of the narrow, mid-stream channel leading to the busy wharves on the New Bedford and Fairhaven sides of the Acushnet River, where whaleships returned from years of voyaging to discharge their valuable cargoes. Whaling gave way, early in the 20th century, to ground fishing and scalloping, and over decades of boom and bust, scallopers, draggers, and yachts took their places at those same wharves.

A keeper maintained the light through most of its history, until it was automated in 1941. The light was discontinued in 1963. The lighthouse, owned by the city of New Bedford and a locus of heroism, tragedy, and artistry, has been repeatedly restored and has been relit.

The island’s history is a trove of commercial and illicit activity, most of which flourished and faltered. For instance: “Palmer’s Island saw much activity during the nineteenth century,” according to New England Lighthouses, a Virtual Guide. “In the 1860s, a hotel and dance hall were built on the southern side of the island, and visitors came by steamer from New Bedford. The hotel became a favorite stop for returning whalers, and illegal activity grew rampant. The hotel closed around 1890, and an amusement park was built on the island. This park failed after a few years, and the old hotel building burned down in 1905.”

But tenuous business ambitions, whether early in the 20th century or today, early in the 21st, are not the best of the legacy. The human stories are better, especially one in particular, but I’ll get to that later. In the meantime, here’s a more modern sidelight, a bit of justly unrecorded history.

In the 1960s, as the Palmer’s Island Light was being extinguished, Palmer’s Island became a kind of Treasure Island for some Fairhaven kids who had tiny sailboats — 12- and 13-foot Woodpussies or Beetle Cats, and Cape Cod knockabouts — and appetites for child-size adventures. We’d beat over to the island in the afternoon, run our boats up on the beach in a kind of cove on the west side and spend the night exploring and frightening ourselves. It was spectacular fun.

Today, at high tide, Palmer’s Island is an island. At low tide, kids can wade out to it from the edge of the hurricane barrier, and they have, often leaving a mess behind, something it hadn’t occurred to us to do years ago.

Recently, touring the New Bedford waterfront, I learned that the shallow cove west of the island, where years ago we’d gone ashore, has been marked for the establishment of the mainland construction hub for the Cape Wind effort. The huge steel cylinders that will be joined to form the core of the turbine towers on Horseshoe Shoal will be shipped to the as yet unbuilt construction base, then loaded aboard vessels that will transport them to the shoal, where they will be transferred to jackup rigs that will jet them into the sandy bottom and plant the turbines themselves on the top. The river west of the island will be dredged to accommodate the vessels working at this depot, and the dry land along the shore will be filled to become a vast staging area for the equipment and enormously heavy tower parts.

Along the waterfront north of where this Cape Wind staging site will be — as yet, only the markers for the dredging project are visible, nothing else has been done — there is the old electric plant, a massive brick building with broken windows, big fuel tanks and a deep water bulkhead. This disused industrial site had been marked for the development of an aquarium, but that went nowhere. Now it is one of the maze of possible sites for a casino, after the Indian tribes, the gaming moguls, and the state government regulators decide which casino proposal to gamble on.

Between the Cape Wind construction depot and the would-be casino site there is a small city of flourishing businesses that service the fishing industry. Scallop fishing is booming, groundfishing, tortured by regulators, is a tougher game. Actually, the money may be in trading fishing licenses. They’re not making more of those. Today, fish investors are not buying yellowtail or flounder, they’re buying fishing licenses, so they can build several top notch scallopers, for example, and send each one out fishing for the 90 days allowed on its license and send another of their fleet’s vessels out for a second 90 days, on its license. And, so on. The licenses get bundled and securitized like mortgages were in the good old days before 2008.

The chandleries, propulsion system designers and mechanics, the propeller servicers, electronics companies, warehouses, wire suppliers, net menders, welders, machine shops, diners, cold storage facilities, etc., and all their owners and workers who do business in the space between the green energy facility to be and the gambling emporium to be live life on the brink. If the gamers, the regulators, and their supporting cast of fish stock forecasters get their way, the livelihood of all these marine related enterprises and workers will give way to alternative energy and iniquitous recreation.

But, I promised you a story, so back to the Palmer’s Island Lighthouse. A man from Brockton, Arthur Small, became the keeper of the light in 1922. In addition to the light tower, there was a boathouse, an oil house, a dwelling, and a wooden walkway from the higher part of Palmer’s Island to the tower. Arthur and his wife Mabel moved in. They had been keepers of Boston Harbor’s Narrows (“Bug”) Light.

Arthur Small, one of three lighthouse keeper brothers, was a painter and, no surprise, as the poet wrote, “some like pictures of women, some like horses best” but Arthur “liked pictures of ships, and you can have the rest.”

Small, a seaman whose experience ranged from sailing ships to battleships, saw his duty and did it. On September 21, the great, unannounced, unnamed 1938 hurricane assaulted the northeast, and during the height of the storm, Small pulled himself hand over hand across the 350-foot walkway to light the lamp in the tower. His wife waited in the oil house, a high spot. A hurricane driven gust toppled him over the walkway’s railing into the water. Watching him, Mabel Small tried to launch a skiff from the boathouse to rescue her husband. He called to her to stop, but a wave destroyed the tiny boathouse. Injured from the drubbing he’d taken, Small nevertheless made it to the tower and lit the lamp. He kept it lit through the night, unable to leave the tower. Next day, when the storm had passed, he learned that his wife had been lost.