Naval History of New London and Southeast Connecticut
This driving tour includes museums and historic landmarks including lighthouses around historic New London.
The Stonington Harbor Light guided vessels across Fishers Island Sound for over 170 years beginning in 1823. The current version of the lighthouse was built in 1840 and is a good example of a mid-19th century stone lighthouse. No longer an active navigational aid, the lighthouse is now a museum operated by The Stonington Historical Society. The lighthouse is 35 feet tall (and 62 feet above the water) and its light could be seen 15 miles away. Inside, a number of artifacts are on display including a cannonball dating to the War of 1812, locally-made stoneware, Chinese items, portrait paintings, a dollhouse, and antique dolls and toys. Visitors can also climb to the top of the tower and enjoy the view.
Constructed in 1854, this 16-room historic home was built by sailor, seal hunter, and explorer Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer (1799-1877), who is notable for discovering Antarctica in 1820, and his brother Captain Alexander Smith Palmer. The discovery marked the end of the age of global exploration which began in the 15th century. The house itself is very well preserved and a fine example of the Italianate style. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark for its architecture and association with Captain Palmer. It is owned and operated by the Stonington Historical Society, which purchased the house in 1994. Inside, visitors will see family furnishings, portraits, artifacts, and variety of other items including memorabilia, ship models (including the 40-foot sailing vessel Palmer used when he found Antarctica), dollhouses, and textiles. There are also exhibits that explore various topics of local history.
Now a bed and breakfast inn, the historic Whitehall Mansion is one of the finest examples of late Colonial architecture in Stonington. It was built in the 1770s by Dr. Dudley Woodbridge, a successful local physician and member of the state legislature. Whitehall is not at its original location; it was moved twice in the 1960s to give room for highway expansion. In 1979, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Charles W. Morgan, moored at Mystic Seaport, is America’s oldest commercial sailing vessel and only the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) is older. The Morgan was built and launched from the shipyard of Jethro and Zachariah in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841. She spent the next 80 years pulling whales out of the oceans for their oil, derived from blubber, and baleen or whalebone. She was saved by Edward Green in 1921, arrived at Mystic Seaport in 1941 and went through lengthy restorations in 1968, 1974, and 2008. The Morgan’s most recent voyage occurred in 2014 when she visited ports along the New England coast. The Morgan was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
The Mystic Seaport Museum is widely recognized as the nation's leading maritime museum. It is 19 acres in size and features a recreated New England coastal village and over 500 historic watercraft, four of which are National Historic Landmarks including the "Charles W. Morgan," which is the last 19th-century wooden whaling ship in the world. Constructed in 1841, it was once part of a 2,700-strong American whaling fleet. Visitors to the museum will learn from craftspeople, historians, musicians, and storytellers about what life was like for those who made a living from the sea in the 1800s. The museum also houses a research center that contains two million artifacts including scrimshaw, paintings, models, tools, ship plans, an oral history archive, film and video recordings, and over one million photographs. The center also features a large research library containing 75,000 books.
This historic mansion and lighthouse are situated on the University of Connecticut at Avery Point Campus. The 31-room Branford House was built by railroad magnate and philanthropist Morton Freeman Plant in 1904. It was designed by his wife, Nellie, who studied architecture in France, in the Late Gothic Revival style (English architect Robert W. Gibson executed her plans). Interesting features include a two-story fireplace, a winding staircase made with Italian marble, and paneled walls carved by Italian and German craftsmen. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Today, the university rents out Branford House for events. Constructed in 1943 (during the height of World War II) to help protect the coast from invasion, Avery Point Lighthouse is located just south of Branford House overlooking Eastern Point Bay. It is notable for being the last lighthouse built in Connecticut. It reaches a height of 55 feet and is octagonal in shape and is an active navigational aid managed by the U.S. Coast Guard, guiding vessels into the cove just to the east and through the waters between Pine Island and Avery Point. It is also significant for being a major Coast Guard training center until 1967, where personnel were taught a variety of skills in life-saving, coastal defense, and navigational aids.
Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park includes monuments and a museum that interpret the history of the Revolutionary War battle that took place at Groton Heights, as well as the burning of New London on September 6, 1781. The Groton Monument and adjacent museum are open throughout the summer, preserving and sharing the history of Fort Griswold.
The US Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum, located on the Thames River near Groton, Connecticut is the only submarine museum managed exclusively by the U.S. Navy, which makes it a repository for many special submarine items of national significance, including the "USS Nautilus." The "USS Nautilus" (SSN-571) is the world's first operational nuclear-powered submarine. It is also known for being the first vessel to complete a submerged transit to the North Pole, which occurred on August 3, 1958. It was decommissioned in 1980 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1982. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The U.S. Coast Guard Museum can be found on the campus of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. This museum preserves and shares the history of America’s oldest continuous maritime service through exhibits of artifacts that span over two hundred and twenty years. Highlights of the museum include steamships, paintings, uniforms, and medals. Visitors can also witness performances of historical Coast Guard duties throughout the complex-activities such as raising and lowering flags and demonstrations of basic navigational equipment. The museum also explores the history of coastal defenses and lighthouses from the colonial period to the present.
Located in the New London Custom House, the Custom House Maritime Museum includes period furniture and exhibits thanks to the New London Maritime Society, the organization that operates the museum. The building was erected in 1835, the peak of maritime trade for the city and a time when New London was the second greatest whaling port in the world. The grand architecture of the Custom House reflects the city's stature in the maritime trade and was designed by Robert Mills, the same architect who later designed the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Built during the Revolutionary War to guard the mouth of the Thames River, this fort also served to defend Connecticut from foreign invasion in the War of 1812. The current fort was constructed between 1839 and 1852-part of a major Congressional appropriation known to historians as the "Third System" of American coastal defenses. The area surrounding the historic fort has served as a US military installation for two centuries. For example, the US Coast Guard's first academy was located at Fort Trumbull from 1915 to 1932. During World War II, the fort as home to the Merchant Marines' Officers Training School.
A marker at Fort Trumbull State Park in New London Connecticut stands to commemorate the creation and importance of the Navy Underwater Sound Laboratory (NUSL). The NUSL, once housed on the grounds at Fort Trumbull, played a crucial role in the research and development of military underwater sound technologies during the Cold War. The facility was closed in the late 90’s succeeding the end of the Cold War earlier in the decade. A 1950’s style research and development lab is also on display at the fort.
Reaching a height of 90 feet, the New London Lighthouse has been guiding vessels in and out of the Long Island Sounds since its construction in 1801. Still an active navigational aid, it has eight sides and is situated on the west side of the New London harbor entrance. Its light can be seen 15 miles away. The U.S. Coast Guard operates the light but the lighthouse is owned by the New London Maritime Society. The lighthouse is the fourth one to be located at this site; the first was erected in 1760 or 1761. As such, it holds significant historical importance as one of the oldest lighthouses in the country. For this reason, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. At present, the lighthouse is not open to the public on a regular basis.