A Mystic experience
A rambling by Tom Knapp

For long months at sea, fewer than three dozen men made the cramped quarters of the Charles W. Morgan their home. Now, thousands of people pass over her worn deck and through her rough wood underbelly each week.

The Morgan is the one of the crowning glories of Mystic Seaport, a sort of nautical Williamsburg on the Connecticut coast. Established in 1929 as the Marine Historical Association, the maritime preservation group found a home on the site of the former George Greenman & Co. shipyard in Mystic, one renowned as a fishing, whaling and shipbuilding village.

The small site, with only one boat and one building for exhibits, started growing rapidly after its acquisition of the Charles W. Morgan, America's last surviving whaling ship, in 1941. The collection grew to include more ships, artifacts and historical buildings following World War II.

The seaport now comprises more than 60 buildings on 37 acres, with the world's largest collection of large and small watercraft. More than 400,000 people visit the seaport each year. Many make a beeline for the Charles W. Morgan, whose masts and sails can be seen from the entrance, towering over a cluster of trees and buildings.

The three-masted whaling ship was launched in 1841. The last ship of its kind, she made 37 voyages over a period of 80 years. Whaling voyages lasted from nine months to five years, with an average of 33 men per trip. Retired in 1921, she was delivered to Mystic in 1941, refloated in 1973 after 30 years in a sand berth, and given extensive renovations at the Mystic shipyard, which is still active.

It follows in a long tradition of shipbuilding there. Historians know of more than 600 ships built in Mystic between 1784 and 1919, and they believe shipbuilding began there as early as the 1600s.

Ship enthusiasts will find plenty to tempt their interest. Built in 1882, the Joseph Conrad was originally named the Georg Stage and used as a training vessel for Danish cadets. Sunk in 1905 following a collision with a British steamer, she was raised and refitted for use until being retired in 1934, then changed hands several times before coming to Mystic for training and exhibition in 1947.

The L.A. Dunton is a two-masted fishing schooner launched in 1921 with a crew of 20. The Sabino is a coal-powered steamship built in 1908, which still provides cruises down the Mystic River in season. And there are more: the Florence, the Nellie, the Annie, the Emma C. Berry ... more than 500 ships and boats are in the Mystic collection.

Mystic isn't just a maritime museum. Many of the docks are active and there are always boats on the water. The salt air, the sea birds and the snap of sails and riggings are constant reminders that you're where the history was actually made.

On some days you can see ships being built or repaired in the shipyard, where a reproduction of the slave ship Amistad was completed in the spring of 2000. You can walk through the innards of the unrestored Australia to get a better view of how ships are put together.

The seaport also features a 19th-century village, with active and passive historical exhibits plus plenty of shops for maritime buffs and souvenir hunters. Collections of figureheads, ship models, scrimshaw carvings and art are always on display. If that's not educational enough, there's a planetarium show, a research library and Voyages, an exhibit on America's seafaring history. The staff, some costumed in period garb, provide explanations and demonstrations of the sailor's and fisherman's arts. There are also carriage rides through the town.

A fairly new exhibit details the events of the Amistad, a schooner on which 53 African slaves revolted against their captors, killing the captain and several crewmen, in 1839. Later captured by a U.S. naval ship, the West Africans were tried in Connecticut in what later became known as the first civil rights court battle in history. After a few years of legal entanglements, the survivors were returned home to Africa.

Special events vary through the year. On Aug. 1, Herman Melville's birthday, the entire text of Moby Dick is read aloud on the deck of the Charles W. Morgan.

For the fast-paced New England traveler, it's easy to hit the Mystic Seaport highlights in a few hours. But be prepared, it's very easy to lose yourself in the experience and spend the entire day.

by Tom Knapp