New Bedford was a major hub on Underground Railroad
From the pages of AAA Horizons, a publication of the American Automobile Association

By Joe O'Shea

Photo by Joe O'Shea
The Nathan and Polly Johnson House in New Bedford was Frederick Douglass' first home as a free man.

Long known as the Whaling City, New Bedford could easily be called the “Underground Railroad City” as well.

The whaling capital of the world in the 19th century, New Bedford was once among the world's most affluent cities. A lesser-known fact about the Whaling City is that it once served as a major hub on the Underground Railroad, the legendary 19 th century network of people and places that helped people of color escape the bonds of slavery.

“The main influx of fugitive slaves occurred during the 1840s,” says National Park Ranger Frank Barrows. “The African-American population expanded exponentially in this decade. During this era, one out of every three African Americans in New Bedford had escaped slavery.”

New Bedford was a natural stop on the network. First, the whaling industry was in constant need of labor. Second, New Bedford ships frequented Southern and Caribbean ports, making it easy for fugitive slaves to stow away. Finally, the city's Quaker heritage fostered a liberal spirit that welcomed people of color.

Due to the secrecy of the network, many of the railroad's stops and sites – in New Bedford and beyond – have been difficult to determine. Several, however, have been pinpointed in New Bedford, and exist in and around the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park.

Obviously, most buildings on New Bedford's rail trail have been razed and replaced, but the Nathan and Polly Johnson Properties remain. Located at 17-21 Seventh Street, these homes were owned by New Bedford's best-known black abolitionists in the 19 th century.

Photo by Joe O'Shea
When New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world in the mid-19th century, the Four Corners was the epicenter of trade.

On September 17 or 18, 1838, Nathan and his wife, Polly, took in a young man named Frederick, and his spouse, Anna, who took the surname Johnson upon their escape from slavery in Maryland. Since there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford at the time, Nathan suggested that the young couple adopt a new surname, Douglass, after the Scottish lord in “The Lady of the Lake,” a poem by Sir Walter Scott.

“I shall ever be deeply grateful, both to Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson, for the lively interest they were pleased to take in me, in this hour of my extremist need,” wrote Douglass, the most famous black abolitionist of his generation. “They not only gave myself and wife bread and shelter, but taught us how to begin to secure those benefits for ourselves.”

Of the 13 remaining sites on the underground rail trail in New Bedford, one of the most intriguing is the Louis Temple statue (New Bedford Free Library) and the Louis Temple House (54 Bedford Street), former home of the African American man who invented the iron-toggle harpoon tip, which revolutionized whaling.

“Where Temple came from Virginia, it's possible that he was a slave, but we have no proof,” says Barrows. “We know that he was a blacksmith in New Bedford, and that he came up with the only technological innovation of his time – the iron toggle harpoon tip – for the whaling industry. But he never patented it, so he was never able to profit from it.”

Call (508) 996-4095 or visit

Copyright 1990-present Joe O'Shea, Jr.
O'Shea Communications