Across the harbor from the old whaling port of New Bedford, Fairhaven is a seaside town with an assortment of grand turn-of-the-century public buildings.
These landmarks, including schools, the Town Hall and the Millicent Library, were donated in a fit of generosity by the industrialist Henry H. Rogers.
He was an executive at Standard Oil, which was the largest petroleum company in the world at the time.
Creating one of New England’s finest townscapes, many of these buildings still serve their original purpose, and you can check them out on a guided or self-guided walking tour.
Your visit to Fairhaven shouldn’t end downtown, as there’s much to discover along the Buzzards Bay coast at beaches, salt marshes, and coastal forests, protected as conservation lands or state reservations.
1. Henry H. Rogers Tour
The biggest contribution to Fairhaven’s townscape came from locally born industrialist Henry H. Rogers (1840-1909), who funded a succession of lavish projects in his hometown at the turn of the 20th century.
Beginning with a grammar school in 1885, Rogers bestowed Fairhaven with a collection of landmarks of rare beauty, all built in Revivalist styles.
Among the standouts are the Town Hall (1892), Millicent Library (1893), the Unitarian Memorial Church (1901), and the palatial Fairhaven High School (1905).
These were all designed by Boston architect Charles Brigham (1841-1925). You can download a self-guided tour, taking you to these sites and other Rogers-related locations, while offering some extra background.
On Thursday mornings, June through September there’s a guided walking tour that departs from the Town Hall at 10am.
2. Fort Phoenix State Reservation
Guarding the rocky entrance to New Bedford Harbor from the east side, Fort Phoenix was built in 1775 and was involved in the first naval engagement of the American Revolutionary War.
This installation was then destroyed by the British in 1778, and got the name Fort Phoenix in 1784 after one of many rebuilds.
The five cannons on the parapet are Model 1819 24-pounders, which have been there since before the Civil War. The surrounding reservation has attracted visitors since the 1880s when the trolley brought day-trippers from New Bedford.
There’s half a mile of accessible sandy beach, a lot of grassy space in the park, and assorted facilities including tennis courts, sand volleyball courts, and a children’s playground.
3. Visitors Center & Historical Society Museum
Preserved next to the splendid Fairhaven High School is an older school building, dating back to 1798. Built in the Federal style, this building became Fairhaven Academy after the town was incorporated in 1812.
For much of the 19th century the building had multiple purposes, as a place of education, but also hosting religious services upstairs as well as town meetings and other civic events.
Open June through September (except Wednesday and Sunday), the Visitors Center is a useful first port of call in Fairhaven, with maps and brochures for the town’s attractions and events.
The local historical society has an absorbing, regularly updated display of local artifacts, spanning topics like Fort Phoenix, the whaling trade, and Henry H. Rogers.
4. Phoenix Bike Trail
You can see much of Fairhaven, from its leafy townscape to its woods, agriculture and salt marsh, without having to use a car.
The Phoenix Bike Trail cuts across the town, east to west, for 4.5 miles, including a 1.7-mile extension heading south along the Sconticut Neck peninsula.
This is the old railbed of a long abandoned railroad, running parallel to Route 6. Broad and paved, the trail is perfect for bicyclists, walkers, runners, and shows off the full diversity of habitats in the town.
At the east end, after passing by the Nasketucket Bay State Reservation, the path merges with the Mattapoisett Rail Trail at the town line.
5. Riverside Cemetery
In the mid-19th century, after Fairhaven’s previous burial ground had become too small for the town’s burgeoning population, a new cemetery was built next to the Acushnet River.
The founder was Warren Delano, Jr. (1809-1898), the maternal grandfather of FDR, who purchased these 14 acres and gifted them to the town. You can visit the Delano tomb, where 20 family members including William, Jr., are buried.
This dignified monument was completed in 1859 and designed by one of the preeminent architects of the day, Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895).
A little grander is the mausoleum for Henry H. Rogers, while there’s a Civil War monument by George F. Meacham (1831-1917), erected in memory of Fairhaven’s fallen soldiers and sailors in 1868.
6. Unitarian Memorial Church
Easily one of the finest churches in the region, the Unitarian Memorial dates to 1901 and has a Gothic Revival design, based on the English Perpendicular Gothic style from the 15th and 16th centuries.
The exterior is composed of local granite and ornately carved Indiana limestone, with profuse marble and limestone carvings inside.
Rogers hired dozens of Italian craftsmen for this work, as well as another 45 Bavarian woodcarvers for the magnificent pews, choir screen, organ cases and the pulpit.
Other superlative details include the organ itself, the stained glass windows, the sanctuary’s bronze doors, the canopied baptismal font, and the tower, 165 feet in height and visible for miles. Consult the church’s website for a tour.
7. Millicent Library
In that burst of Rogers-funded projects from the turn of the 20th century is this august library building, dedicated in 1893. This building was named for Henry’s daughter, Millicent, who had died from heart failure 1890 at the age of just 17.
The Millicent Library combines Italian Renaissance and Romanesque Revival architecture, and is celebrated for its red slate roof, theatrical terra cotta moldings, and a large stained glass window portraying Millicent as the Muse of Poetry, and produced by Clayton and Bell of London.
Twain was full of praise for the library when he visited following the dedication of Fairhaven Town Hall in 1894. In the rich collections are artifacts relating to Nakahama Manjirō (1827-1898), one of the first Japanese people to live in the United States.
He chose to come to Fairhaven in 1841, after being rescued from the uninhabited island of Torishima by whaler William H. Whitfield following a shipwreck.
8. Fairhaven Town Hall
Across Center St from the Millicent Library is another magnificent landmark given to the town by Rogers and designed by Brigham.
As with the Unitarian Memorial Church, Fairhaven Town Hall (1892) has a Revivalist design, blending Romanesque and Gothic elements.
Still containing a number of municipal offices, the town hall was initially home to the post office, police station and three jail cells. Outside, the eye-catching feature is the clock tower, topped with a crocketed roof.
The interior is replete with stained glass, oak paneling and solid brass fixtures, and has a marvelous auditorium on the second floor.
This continues to host functions, and welcomed Rogers’ friend Mark Twain, who took the stage at the dedication ceremony in 1894.
9. West Island State Reservation
Isolated in Buzzards Bay, Fairhaven’s windswept West Island seems far-flung, but is only 15 minutes by road from downtown.
The eastern half of the island is protected by a state reservation, composed of rocky beaches, secluded coves, woods and wild salt marshes, crossed by some two miles of trails for a blustery walk in raw natural scenery.
Tucked into the island’s less exposed south shore is Fairhaven’s town beach, which has lifeguards on duty, late-June through Labor Day.
In the past it has been possible for residents and non-residents to purchase a day-pass at the gate here.
But in the year we compiled this article, you had to go to the Board of Public Works downtown and obtain a pass for the entire season. This situation may change by the time you visit.
10. Nasketucket Bay State Reservation
A recommended detour for anyone making their way along the Phoenix Bike Trail is this 200+ acre parcel of coastal pine forest, craggy shoreline, meadows and salt marshes lining Nasketucket Bay.
This land was earmarked for a reservation development before becoming a reservation, and the trails follow the course of plotted driveways and pass clearings intended for houses.
The reservation is also surrounded by a jumble of conservation lands like Shaw Farm and Carvalho Farm, adding up to hundreds of acres of protected nature for you to discover.
On the water you can survey the rocky shoreline and cast your gaze out over Nasketucket Bay, which has lots of little islands, and beyond to West Island and Buzzards Bay.
11. Fairhaven Hurricane Barrier
Fairhaven and New Bedford’s densely urbanized shorelines are protected by a barrier built in the 1960s at the mouth of the Acushnet River.
This structure, consisting of thousands of feet of earthfill dikes running across the harbor and along the shore, came at a cost of $18.6 million, and followed destructive flooding in the wake of hurricanes in 1938 and 1954.
The barrier has a maximum height of 20 feet, and has a 150-foot gated opening for seagoing traffic. For the public, the paved walkway atop the barrier is a favored fishing spot. There’s also a sensational view of New Bedford Harbor, all the more beautiful if you come at sunset.
12. Little Bay Conservation Area
One way to see more of Fairhaven’s shoreline and natural interior is by visiting one of the many town-owned conservation lands dotted here and there.
A stunning location that is also easy to get to is this marshy expanse at the mouth of the Nasketucket River. Here Little Bay feeds into Nasketucket Bay, in a habitat teeming with shellfish, supporting wading birds like egrets and herons.
A 1.7-mile extension of the Phoenix Bike Trail skirts the western limit of the 70-acre conservation area, for dreamy views of both bays. The vistas are even better if you head to the end of the pier stretching out into Little Bay.
13. Shipyard Farm Trails
Head down Sconticut Neck to spend some time at this patch of coastal conservation land at the transition between agricultural land and salt marsh.
The ideal time to come to Shipyard Farm is early in the day, when you can watch the sun come up over Nasketucket Bay and West Island.
The reservation covers just over 50 acres, and comprises a bucolic hayfield, woods and salt marsh, containing interesting vestiges of settlement such as centuries-old cellar holes and stone walls.
You may spot deer and rabbits on the drier land, while ospreys, gulls and crabs often make an appearance on the shore.
14. Huttleston Marketplace
This large seasonal market sets up on the grounds of the Visitors Center and Museum, next to Fairhaven High School.
Late May through September, Huttleston Marketplace is a weekly extravaganza of local produce, prepared food, and arts and crafts.
On a given week there will be up to 80 vendors here from 10am to 3pm, selling locally grown produce, honey, eggs, pastries, antiques, home decorations, used books, pottery, jewelry, woodworking, candles, clothing, artisanal soaps, and tons more.
As a rule, all crafts have to be handmade, and the market takes place every week, rain or shine.
15. Fairhaven Farmers’ Market
If you’re in town on a Sunday during the summer there’s another farmers’ market, on a field at 151 Alden Road.
Oriented towards groceries rather than crafts, this is a private operation attended by an array of farms and businesses based in the town or the immediate area.
You can normally expect seasonal fresh produce, grass-fed meats, fresh scallops right off the boat, raw honey, eggs, breads, cakes, scones, homemade lemonade, and more. There’s parking on the premises, and the market provides free space for non-profit groups.