Fall River gets little travel love. Why would it, when most people identify the city by the forlorn landscape of vacant mills, Lizzie Borden, and the culinary oddity called a chow mein sandwich (just ask native son Emeril Lagasse)?
The neighboring towns of Westport and Dartmouth, beneficiaries of Horseneck Beach State Reservation and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, offer more natural beauty and upscale lures. This blue-collar city and its neighbor New Bedford are still struggling in the shadow of a long-gone manufacturing past. But if travelers heading to Cape Cod decide to avoid long lines and high prices, there are gems to be found, if you take an exit and know where to look.
Like Lowell and Lawrence, Fall River was once a thriving textile capital; during the 19th and early part of the 20th century, it was the leading textile manufacturing center in the county and second only to Manchester, England, in the world. That industry has disappeared, but remnants of that past remain: sprawling parks built for the children of mill workers (three of them, Ruggles, North, and Kennedy, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted); tenements that sit cheek by jowl; and spectacular churches constructed by the immigrants that flocked to the mills, such as the ornate St. Anne’s Shrine (corner of South Main and Middle streets, www.stanneshrine.com) which opened in 1906. Neighborhoods that were home to Irish, French, Portuguese, Polish, Italian, and Syrian residents boasted their own schools, churches, bakeries and social clubs. There are still glimpses of what these ethnic enclaves offered. If Sam’s Bakery (256 Flint St.) were in Boston, there would be lines out the door and “best of” signs plastered in the windows. After buying fresh Lebanese and Syrian bread or meat, cabbage, and spinach pies by the dozen, customers regularly devour one or two in the car even before leaving the parking lot.
Immigrants from Ireland and England brought their love of meat pies to Fall River — they were cheap, filling, and most importantly for dinner pails, portable. Hartley’s Original Pork Pies (1729 South Main St.) has been baking and serving English-style meat pies since 1900. Like Sam’s, it’s a nondescript storefront that makes meat, pork, salmon, and chicken pies, large and individual. When natives return to Fall River, Hartley’s and Sam’s are two must-stops.
The waterfront at Fall River Heritage State Park overlooking the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay claims the world’s largest collection of World War II naval vessels. The USS Massachusetts, a.k.a. “Big Mamie,” has been a destination for families and schoolchildren since it opened at Battleship Cove in 1965. Built in Quincy at the Fore River Shipyard, it saw action in the South Pacific during the war and is now the centerpiece of five National Historic Landmark ships at the site. Others include the Destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., and the submarine USS Lionfish.
Besides the battleships, there are other attractions at Battleship Cove (www.battleshipcove.org) that make it a worthwhile destination for families. The Old Colony and Fall River Railroad Museum, located across from the former Fall River Line Terminal, offers a collection of artifacts and equipment from the Old Colony and Fall River Railroad which served the area from 1854 to 1863. It’s housed in a Pennsylvania Railroad car from the 1920s. There’s also a diesel rail car, a circa 1963 caboose, and a rare 1945 boxcar from the New Haven Railroad. The museum is small but staffed by volunteers who are the real thing: railroad men happy to share their knowledge.
Nearby, the Marine Museum at Fall River (70 Water St., marinemuseumfr.org) houses nautical memorabilia, artifacts, and ship models of the Fall River Line, a fleet of steamships that operated from 1847 to 1937, carrying passengers from Boston and New York to summer homes in Newport. The museum is home to one of the largest Titanic exhibitions in the world, including a 28-foot-long scale model of the RMS Titanic that was used in the 1953 film “Titanic.”
Some of the city’s sprawling granite mills are vacant but others have been converted into shops, restaurants, and businesses. The Narrows Center for the Arts (16 Anawan St., www.nar
rowscenter.org) is on the third floor of a former American Printing Co. mill building and is now the loft-like, high-ceilinged home to two galleries, artist studios, and a performance space that attracts top music talent; Shawn Colvin, Tom Rush, Bettye LaVette, and the London Souls are set to play the venue this summer.
OK, so Lizzie still remains the primary attraction. The Fall River Historical Society (451 Rock St., www.lizzie
borden.org), a granite mansion built in 1843, offers a thoughtful Borden exhibit that (despite the society’s domain name) plays down the sensational and focuses on the history.
If one’s curiosity is still not sated, head over to 230 Second St., scene of the infamous 1892 Borden murders, and now the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum (www.lizzie-bor
den.com) owned by Donald Woods and Lee-ann Wilber. Guides conduct daily 50-minute tours on the hour; guests of the inn (some swear it’s haunted) get a complimentary 90-minute tour. And, yes, on the Aug. 4 anniversary of the murders, there will be a reenactment.
Lizzie Borden is buried in the Borden family plot in historically significant Oak Grove Cemetery (765 Prospect St.), a 100-acre site designed by local architect Josiah Brown in the planned rural-garden style of Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Neighboring New Bedford, a seaport with a working waterfront, has capitalized on its whaling heritage which presumably offers more to tourists than the textile trade (although New Bedford had many mills too). The New Bedford Whaling Museum (18 Johnny Cake Hill, www.whalingmuse
um.org) is a world-class institution dedicated to the history of whaling, whale research, conservation, and the maritime trade. There’s an art exhibit up until next February: “Benjamin Russell: Whaleman-Artist, Entrepreneur,” a collection of Russell’s (1804-85) many ship and whaling scene paintings and lithographs.
New Bedford has also harnessed its many galleries and historic sites for its innovative program called AHA! (www.ahanewbedford.com), free evenings of arts and culture events that take place on the cobblestone streets of downtown on the second Thursday of every month from 5 to 9 p.m. More than 60 downtown museums, galleries, arts organizations, merchants, restaurants, churches, and schools, the whaling museum and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park participate. Pick up a guide at the waterfront Visitors Center on Fisherman’s Wharf (Old City Pier #3, 800-508-5353) or at one of the many galleries throughout the city.
The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center (684 Purchase St., www.zeiteri
on.org) is the city’s showpiece: a beautifully restored vaudeville-era theater that presents live musicals, children’s shows, and concerts. Upcoming events include a touring production of “The Sound of Music” and an appearance by rockers Night Ranger.
Like Fall River, New Bedford is home to many ethnic neighborhoods, particularly Portuguese. For an authentic dining experience, check out the excellent and moderately priced Antonio’s Restaurant & Cafe (267 Coggeshall St., www.antoniosnewbed
ford.com), a family restaurant offering fresh fish, meat, homemade sangria and its trademark cod cakes.
At the southern tip of the city is the 47-acre Fort Taber Park (1000 South Rodney French Blvd., forttaber.org), with views of Buzzards Bay. The park is a great place to walk and bike on its paths or relax with a picnic. The site’s former use as a military reservation dates to the American Revolution. The Fort Taber~Fort Rodman Military Museum includes exhibits and displays of military artifacts and weaponry. On Aug. 23-24, there will be a reenactment of a Revolutionary War encampment with British and Colonial troops.