One hundred and fifty years away lies the Mystic Seaport Museum, where artisans of today portray a way of life of yesterday.
The museum, which is really 60 buildings, with exhibits and ships on 40 acres alongside the Mystic River in southwestern Connecticut, is a representation of a 19th-century whaling and shipbuilding village. It is always pleasant, in this crisis-a-week era, to step back to times that were simpler than our own -- at least, we think they were simpler.
Work goes on here to keep alive the art of shipbuilding as it was practiced many years ago. The Mystic River was the base for a shipbuilding industry as far back as the 1600s. Sealing voyages in the early 1800s furnished the capital for more ambitious voyages, by whalers. From about 1822 to 1850, whaling and shipbuilding were Mystic's principal vocations. The Whales were sought for their blubber, which was made into oil used for illumination.
One prominent reminder of those days is the Charles W. Morgan. Of the hundreds upon hundreds of wooden whaling ships built, she is the only one left. Built in 1841 (ironically, not in Mystic, but in New Bedford, Mass.), the Morgan had a working career of 80 years. Twenty years after the whaling days ended, the Morgan came to Mystic Museum and today is its centerpiece.
On a recent visit, the Morgan was in drydock for work on her hull, but it was still possible to walk around the d ecks; sailing on her obviously did not make for an easy life. The quarters, both living and working, are cramped. A 6-footer can't stand up straight in the hold, where provisions were stored, and must watch out for beams in the living areas. The bunks for the seamen were stacked against the walls.
But the hard life of the whaler was not destined to last forever; the introduction in the 1840s of coal gas as a replacement for whale oil and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 led to the demise of the New England whaling industry. Its peak was reached in 1846 when there were 647 vessels listed. By 1884, there were only 114 left and by 1920, New England whaling voyages had virtually ceased.
But imagine, as you tour the buildings of the seaport museum, what it took to put together one of these whaling voyages. (The Morgan's first one lasted more than three years.)
There's theMystic Bank, where captains came to obtain the capital for their voyages. The bank was opened in 1833 in what is now Old Mystic, upriver from the museum site. The building continued to be used as a bank until 1856. It was given to the museum in 1948 and transported stone by stone to its present site.
Visit the shipsmith, where harpoons, cutting irons and fittings for the ships were made -- and some of which are still made here. The shop in Mystic was built in 1885 in New Bedford by a man who had a shipsmith for many years. It replaced his original shop, which became too large for his needs in the waning days of the whaling industry. The smaller shop was moved to Mystic in 1944.
The chandlery was the department store-supermarket of its day. Provisions for the ships and the seamen were purchased there: navigational equipment, lanterns and ships' logs for the vessels; food, tobacco, rum and clothing for the men.
You can visit the sail loft, a rigging loft and ropewalk (where rope was made) as well as many buildings that served the families of the seamen: drug store, general store, chapel and schoolhouse.
There are two other ships that visitors may explore: The L.A. Dunton, a 12-foot-long fishing schooner built in 1921, and the Joseph Conrad, a training ship built in Copenhagen in 1882. In the buildings and on the ships, guides are available to answer your questions. Admission to the seaport museum is $6 for adults, $3 for children, and the museum is open every day except Christmas and New Year's Day.
Nearby is the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium, which houses more than 2,000 specimens from North American waters in 30 indoor exhibits. Ourdoors, Seal Island, a 2 1/2-acre complex, has five species of seals and sea lions.
The highlight, though, is the Marine Theater, where two beluga whales, Alex and Okie, two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Kimo and Sassy, and various sea lions to their tricks -- or "behaviors," as the trainers call them. vSeeing these animals jump through hoops and over barriers, standing on their tails and just being cute will keep your children -- and you -- enthralled. Alex, by the way, weighs about a ton -- and, the trainer said, likes to have his belly rubbed.
Admission to the aquarium is $4.50 for adults and $2 for children 5-17 and senior citizens.