FALL RIVER – When it comes to tourist attractions, Manhattan has its skyscrapers and theater district.
And while the much smaller Fall River is lacking in that regard, it can boast the unique distinction of being home to the house where Lizzie Borden allegedly used a hatchet in 1892 to murder her father and stepmother.
Since opening as a bed and breakfast in 1995, the circa-1845 three-story dwelling on Second Street continues to attract a steady stream of visitors who have an abiding interest in so-called dark tourism.
The Spindle City can also lay claim to its waterfront war memorial Battleship Cove maritime museum, berth to World War II-era battleship, the former USS Massachusetts — fondly referred to as Big Mamie — and recognized for comprising the single largest collection of historic naval ships in the world.
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And don’t forget Al Mac’s Diner, which was built in 1953 and continues to sling hash and pour coffee at the bottom of President Avenue in a plaza now known as Broadway Crossing.
Battleship Cove CEO expects an uptick in tourism
The nonprofit Battleship Cove, which is run by the USS Massachusetts Memorial Committee, took a financial hit in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
At least 21,500 people paid admission to visit the Water Street maritime site in 2019 from Jan. 1 through the second weekend in July, chief financial officer Chris Nardi told The Herald News in the summer of 2020.
For the same six-month period in 2020, he said, that number fell to no more than 3,600.
Nardi also said at least 62,000 admission tickets were sold in 2019.
Meghan Rathbun, who took over as Battleship Cove’s CEO in September, said she’s confident tourism at Battleship Cove — whether it’s touring the site or even renting part of the battleship for a party or private event — will eventually return and even surpass pre-COVID levels .
Rathbun says one bright spot during the past year has been the popularity of Nautical Nights, an overnight youth program that was reinstated after an extended hiatus in 2020.
She said the program remains a main revenue driver for the Battleship Cove organization.
Rathbun said because of concerns over the continued threat of COVID-19, the maximum number of attendees for a Nautical Nights evening still remains at 250, as compared to 500 before the emergence of the global pandemic.
“Everyone is more spread out,” she said, referring to sleeping accommodations.
Fortunately, Rathbun said, there’s been a steady and growing demand for the educational and fun-time sleepover.
“We’re booking three months out. There’s a lot of interest, which is fantastic,” she said.
Rathbun said she feels fortunate to have been able to hire Sydney Valentine part-time to manage the Nautical Nights program, which she hopes will eventually become a full-time job position.
“I’m very gratified we were able to steal her away from Mystic,” Rathbun said with a smile, referring to Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut where Valentine previously worked.
Tickets for Battleship Cove, which is open all year from Friday through Sunday, are valid for two consecutive days.
In addition to either a guided or self-guided tour of the Big Mamie and its surrounding wartime naval vessels and helicopters, ticket holders are entitled to visit the separate Maritime Museum that stays open April to September.
Exhibits in the museum building include a 28-foot model of the doomed RMS Titanic and various artifacts from the old Fall River Line that ran luxury passenger steamboats to Manhattan until 1937.
Battleship Cove, which is located on the Taunton River underneath and adjacent to the Charles M. Braga Jr. Memorial Bridge, also has a well-stocked gift shop.
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Rathbun said a Halloween children’s event held on the battleship in October was a success. And she expects a large turnout next May when Big Mamie turns 80.
“We’re going to have a weekend event for her birthday,” she said, adding that the USS Massachusetts is one of only eight existing battleships, all of which are in the United States, with steel hulls.
Rathbun is also excited about a new tourism-friendly project to create a permanent exhibit for the Cobra and Iroquois, the museum’s two Vietnam war-era helicopters.
She said Battleship Cove has been awarded two grants from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism to be used for the helicopter project.
These include a $25,000 grant for marketing and an $85,000 capital matching grant for construction of the exhibit.
And Rathbun is especially pleased that Battleship Cove will receive $1 million from a bill passed by the legislature and signed into law in December by Gov. Charlie Baker — to distribute $4 billion of federal American Rescue Plan Act money throughout the commonwealth.
She said the funding will go a long way toward restoring the battleship and the other vessels berthed at the cove.
Lizzie Borden fan base
Lance Zaal has made some changes and alterations since buying the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum business and real estate last May for just under $1.9 million.
First of all the Richmond, Virginia, entrepreneur did an extensive overhaul of the business’s gift shop.
The shop occupies a two-story, converted barn in the parking area behind the circa-1845, three-story house where 70-year-old Andrew Jackson Borden and his second wife Abby Durfee Gray Borden, 64, were dispatched by someone with a hatchet the morning of Aug. 4, 1892.
Lizzie Borden, who was 32 at the time, was acquitted of murder at trial and lived to age 66.
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In addition to some extensive housecleaning inside the historic house at 230 Second St., Zaal has been offering walking “ghost tours” of downtown sites that were decimated by three major fires — one in which 23 factory workers died — from the mid-1800s to the early 20th century.
The ghost tours are nothing new for Zaal, who in recent years has been running an online business called US Ghost Adventures. The walking tour service is available in cities throughout the country.
The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum recently hosted a two-day event featuring the mythical Krampus — a horned, Central European, folklore figure whose purpose during the Christmas season is to scare children who have misbehaved and reward them with pieces of coal.
Jared Robinson, who last July took over as general manager of the bed and breakfast and gift shop, said a total of 80 children and adults visited Krampus during those two days.
“They loved it, loved it, loved it,” he said.
Robinson said there are now 10 part-time tour guides who bring individuals and groups through the Borden house where overnight stays are also booked.
“It’s a yearly pilgrimage for some people,” he said, many of who come from various parts of the country.
Kristie Lesleman of Binghamton, New York, and her daughter Corie Brundage of Boise, Idaho, came to Fall River for a tour of the famous double-murder house after first spending two nights in Salem — where 19 people were hanged in the late 1600s after being accused of engaging in witchcraft.
“I guess you could call it morbid curiosity,” Lesleman said.
She said she learned about the Lizzie Borden case from podcasts, books and movies.
Robinson said Zaal is working on other future plans that will be rolled out in 2022: “He definitely wants to go, go, go.”
Robinson said the Borden house is something of a second home to him.
He says when he was a boy his grandmother gave tours after it was turned into a bed and breakfast by then-owner Martha McGinn — whose grandfather, John, bought the property in 1948 — and her partner Ronald Evans.
Robinson says his mother helped McGinn restore the house and that one of his aunts did carpentry and wallpaper work and painted some portraits of Lizzie and her sister Emma that now adorn the walls.
“When I was growing up, it really was a family affair,” he said.
Before becoming general manager last summer, Robinson had worked off and on for nearly 10 years at Al Mac’s Diner.
He said during that time he often spoke to customers from outside the New England area who told him they had made a point to visit the Fall River diner.
Robinson says during a visit to Orlando he ate in a diner where a reproduction of a publicity photo of Al Mac’s Diner that had run in a magazine was on the wall.
Al Mac’s Diner has its own following
Cliff Ponte Sr. manages Al Mac’s Diner and its newer counterpart Al Mac’s On-The-Go — both of which are owned by his son Cliff, who presides as Fall River’s City Council president and last November lost an election bid against incumbent Mayor Paul Coogan.
Ponte said the photo to which his former employee Jared Robinson was referring — showing a group of classic 1950s cars parked in front of the diner — has also been turned into a poster.
“You can see it in diners all over the country,” he said.
Ponte says so-called dinner chasers from other states have made a point of eating at Al Mac’s, which was built in 1953 by a New Jersey company.
“It’s not unusual to get customers from New York passing through on their way to the Cape,” he said.
Ponte said the state’s $112 million project to reconfigure and redesign Route 79 and Davol Street in front of Al Mac’s “is itself going to be a huge tourist attraction.”
“Not so many decades ago the waterfront (on the west side of Route 79) was an industrial wasteland,” he said.
“Here at the dinner we look forward to when the road becomes a boulevard. It’s going to be thriving with businesses,” Ponte said.
Charles Winokoor may be reached at email@example.com. Support local journalism and subscribe to The Herald News today.