Where In The World Is The Whaleman?

This week, returned to the task of the whaleman – he may have been found, but his story has not. Let me explain – in the photo, the whaleman is standing in front of a doorway. This doorway’s sole distinguishing feature is the number 47. In discussing this with an archivist, he jokingly suggested looking through all the “47’s” in the New Bedford directory.

Well, that’s exactly what I did. I started searching for some database that could provide that sort of information. I wasn’t entirely sure of what sort of database I was looking for – was I looking for a map or some sort of directory that would provide every address in the city?

I found exactly what I was looking for in the Digital Sanborn Maps Database. The maps were initially created to assist fire insurance companies with assessing the risk associated with insuring a particular property. They identified buildings by the house and block numbers, but also contained information such as size, shape and construction materials, heights, and function of building, among others. 

Each map on the database is divided into sheets, which show a specific block or collection of blocks within a city. The maps were accompanied by a very detailed key, which labeled number of floors, size of buildings, location of doors, etc. For the most part, I didn’t need this key, but it would be interesting from an architectural standpoint (and something to keep in mind for the future.) 

New Bedford has several different maps, charting its growth and development as a city, but the one closest to the time the photo was taken was the map of November 1888. Divided into 33 sheets, I certainly had my work cut out for me. But overall, it was fairly simple to use. I found it frustrating that while you could easily zoom in and out, you couldn’t easily manipulate the map. This made it difficult, for example, when I found the number 47, but I had to go to a different section of the map to see what street it was on. In retrospect, it was really just a minor inconvenience, but something the database could improve upon.

Even though this map is over 100 years old and the city of New Bedford has changed immensely, I could recognize some of the neighborhoods and streets. The easiest markers, of course, were the Seamen’s Bethel and the Mariner’s Home. From there, I was able to somewhat understand what Prof. Miller when she talked about how the streets had changed so much. I could put in context where these familiar buildings are today, and visualize the streets of New Bedford back then.  

And as a West Islander, I loved being able to see the connections between New Bedford and Fairhaven (which at this point was all on one map.) Without I-195 connecting the two towns, it was interesting to see how the former “Bridge Street” linked the towns together. (This is an unrelated anecdote, but Fairhaven’s Bridge Street today no longer leads to a bridge – the new bridge was reconstructed along Huttleston Avenue, named for the town’s benefactor and superintendent of streets, Henry Huttleston Rogers.) Since I have researched that side of the river much more extensively than the New Bedford side, it was exciting to visualize myself driving down some of those streets.

I was able to identify a handful of buildings numbered 47 throughout New Bedford. I expected to find a lot more, but this number is good – thanks to the Sanborn maps, I could also see what type of buildings these were – a few dwellings, a few stores, and one dancing establishment. I really hope this isn’t a dead end, and I hope this 47 leads to something greater in the scheme of the project. 

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