Home / Education / The fascinating and tragic history of Palmers Island in New Bedford

The fascinating and tragic history of Palmers Island in New Bedford


Tucked west inside the busy New Bedford Harbor lies an island that began with a grim history. The land was first used as an internment camp for indigenous people during King Philip’s War in 1675-76. Most of these Individuals were later sold into slavery in the West Indies after the war.

Almost 200 years later in 1843 when New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world, it was decided the harbor needed a lighthouse to help guide the hundreds of ships passing through on a daily basis.

Palmers Island, named after one of the first settlers of Dartmouth, William Palmer was deemed prime real estate for this project. On August 30th 1849 A lighthouse was built on the northern point of the island by Charles M. Pierce who was a local mason.

Like most of the United States lighthouses at that time, the lamps were fueled by world class New Bedford whale oil.

The island was much larger back in the day, and believe it or not in the 1860’s a hotel and dance hall was built on the south side of the island. The hotel survived almost 30 years but eventually closed down due to the illegal activity that began to take place from returning whalers.

After the hotel closed in the early 1890’s an amusement park was built on the island. The park failed after only a few years and everything was burned down in a fire in 1905. The lighthouse continued operating throughout the years with various “lighthouse keepers” working to keep the light shining.

It was a flawless operation until tragedy struck in September of 1938 when a hurricane hit shore.

A gigantic wave swept the lighthouse keeper Arthur Small into the New Bedford Harbor. In a heroic attempt to save her husband, Mabel Small, an expert boatswoman lost her life to the storm. Her body was later recovered on the shore of Fairhaven.

In 1963 a massive hurricane wall was built to protect the New Bedford Harbor which essentially deemed Palmers Lighthouse useless. For the next 36 years there were few attempts to renovate the lighthouse but it continued to be vandalized and remained dark through most of the 1990’s.

In April 1999 Hillary Clinton named New Bedford an official Millennium Community of the White House Millenium Council to “Honor the past and imagine the future”. It was decided that restoring palmers island lighthouse would be New Bedford’s mission.

After a full restoration project, a large crowd gathered on August 30th, 1999 to witness the relighting of palmers island lighthouse….. 150 years to the day after its first lighting in 1849.

Mayor Fred Kalisz famously said in a proclamation “This shall be remembered by the citizens of New Bedford as the day they reaffirmed their ties to the sea, and indeed, to the world.

The video below highlights how the island and lighthouse looks current day!

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