Carol McGarry remembers watching her parents dress up to attend the launching 31 years ago of the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine. Today, she sat on a boulder overlooking the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut to cheer as the ship returned home amid pageantry.

"It is sort of like part of the family," McGarry, 40, of New London said. Her father had worked at the General Dynamics Corp.'s Electric Boat shipyard, where Nautilus was built.

McGarry was among an estimated 100,000 people lining the river while a tugboat nudged the once-speedy ship toward the U.S. Naval Submarine Base here.

In its heyday, the Nautilus broke records by cruising the world's oceans at speeds up to 20 knots. It traveled underwater longer and farther than any submarine had before. Nuclear power provided the crew with creature comforts -- a jukebox and a soda machine -- as well as maneuverability and speed.

Its atomic propulsion system, designed by Westinghouse Electric Corp., Argonne National Laboratory and the Navy and pioneered by Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, was hailed as America's answer to Sputnik.

Considered the first true submersible vessel, Nautilus carried sailors beneath the North Pole in 1958, establishing a northern passage from east to west.

Before its final voyage from the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near San Francisco in May, the sub's famous propulsion system was removed. Its interior has been fitted with Plexiglas walls so the public can view the workings of the ship when it goes on display next April as the centerpiece of the Nautilus Memorial and Submarine Force Library and Museum.

The Navy plans to recommission the Nautilus with a crew of 24, making it the third naval vessel to be retired as a national museum exhibit.

Siren and cannon signals echoed across the Thames today when the Nautilus pierced the fog on the horizon. A band at the City Pier in New London roused throngs that had postponed their Fourth of July celebrations for two days to properly welcome the Nautilus.

"I know it's a submarine, but this is a moving experience," said Richard J. DeNoia, from the deck of a home overlooking the river. "It's like a friend." He grew up across the street from the shipyard and remembers "leaning out of the window and watching the launching" on Jan. 21, 1954.

"There was hoopla, but not like this," DeNoia said.

When the ship's gray hull appeared today, cheers erupted from crowds on both sides of the river. Gov. William A. O'Neill and state officials preceded the submarine up the Thames aboard a replica of the tall ship Providence.

Motor boats, like gnats buzzing around a horse's flank, zipped across the channel near the sub. Sailboats brought up the rear slowly. A fireboat spewed arching columns of water while pink, yellow and blue helium balloons drifted across the gray sky.

Michael DeMuria of Ledyard, Conn., said, "No matter what you think about nuclear power, this is a great day."