America was not built on coal, tobacco, or cotton; it was built on trade. And in the earliest years of our nation, almost all major trade was conducted somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean. Mystic Seaport is an outdoor museum complex devoted entirely to the history of sea commerce on the Atlantic coast of America.
This living history exhibit is a small town within the quaint – no other way to describe it – tourist town of Mystic, Connecticut, where the Mystic River empties into Long Island Sound. Two tall ships are permanently docked here, and others, including a coast guard cutter, make frequent visits, slipping up the channel and stopping traffic at the drawbridge as they come through. Besides the ship, you can visit dozens of preserved and restored buildings as they were in the booming years of whaling: churches, sailors’ libraries, shops, and homes.
You’ll also have an education on ship building as you walk through the shipyard, where real ships are being built by riggers, boat-builders, and lumbermen; the historic schooner Amistad was built here, and frequently docks here for repairs and special events (Amistad is permanently docked just up the sound, in New Haven, Connecticut).
But the real attraction here is the ships. The Charles W. Morgan is the crown jewel of the yard, a simple preserved whaling ship with everything as intact as possible; you’ll see what a real ship looks and feels like when you climb on board, and re-enactors may show you a few other things, like rigging details or how to play a penny whistle and dance a jig. The Morgan is 113 feet long and, fully-rigged, carries over 13,000 square feet of sail. On the deck, you can still look into the giant try-pots where whale blubber was cut away to be converted into the critical oil, and below decks you’ll find captain and crew quarters; some say that a few of the crew still dwell there, in spirit form. Today, the Morgan is a national historic landmark.
The Morgan shares dock space with Sabino, L.A. Dunton, and Emma C. Berry, all historic ships. The Sabino is a wooden coal-fired steamboat from the turn of the 20th century, and takes regular cruises up the beautiful Mystic River during the warmer months, and is also a national historic landmark. The L.A. Dunton is an old fishing schooner, probably the last engineless schooner that was in regular operation, and is a national historic landmark as well. The last resident national historic landmark, the Emma C. Berry, is a fishing smack out of Noank, abandoned back in 1924 and later restored by a wooden boat enthusiast who later donated her to Mystic Seaport.
You can also cruise out in training vessels like the Joseph Conrad; this and other boats are designed to help beginning sailors learn the ropes – literally. Full-rigged sails and working ships are the perfect way to get a feel for sailing before buying your own boat. And there are hundreds of smaller vessels you can cruise out in or just row out yourself onto the river to enjoy a peaceful summer evening.
If you need to do some research on this time period or on ships, the Collections at Mystic Seaport provide a variety of different maritime reference materials, including photos, paintings, extensive data, and assistance from research librarians resident there. For assisted research, there is a charge; there may not be for research you can do yourself. You’ll need to contact Mystic Seaport for details.
The final stop should be the two-story, extensive gift shop, where you can find plenty of local art, maritime literature and knick-knacks, and more information on the area. You can find some pretty good bargains at times, and if they don’t have what you’re looking for, Mystic Village up the road, an upscale grouping of small, non-chain shops. And there are dozens of nice restaurants in the area to enjoy after your visit; don’t limit yourself to the ones right outside the Seaport.
Go toward the seashore and turn south on Rt. 1 to find Mystic Pizza, the restaurant made famous by an eponymous movie, and a dozen other restaurants as well as quaint shopping areas.