History is More Fun on the Water

History is More Fun on the Water Main Photo

14 Jun 2023

Maritime Industry, Tourism

The Thames River divides Groton and New London, but uniting their shared histories is the Thames River Heritage Trail.

Connecticut’s first state Heritage Park, the Thames River Heritage Park, may be unique in the United States in that it’s a collection of more than 20 historic sites, telling the stories that shaped our nation over the last four centuries, connected by a hop-on, hop-off harbor cruise service operated by the non-profit Thames River Heritage Park Foundation.

Catherine Foley, its executive director, describes the foundation’s mission as tying together the history behind the sites, as well as driving tourism and economic developing on both sides of the river.

“All of these are very authentic sites on both sides of the Thames, and they tell incredible stories,” she said.

The Engine of Growth

This year’s theme is “Discover The Thames,” fitting since the river itself is the reason so much history occurred its banks. The deep harbor that empties into Long Island Sound was a natural magnet for the Europeans who began arriving in the 1600’s. Settlements were established, and their location overlooking Long Island Sound made them central players in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. First whaling, through the middle 1800’s, and then manufacturing provided the capital by which this area prospered.

The seasonal harbor cruise, which runs Saturdays, Sundays, and. Holidays from 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. from early June through the conclusion of the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival on Sept. 10, transports visitors on former Navy “liberty” boats. The boats can accommodate 35 people each and were once used to shuttle sailors to and from Navy vessels anchored offshore. This hop-on, hop-off service makes stops at three different landing sites in New London (Fort Trumbull and City Pier) and Groton (Thames River Landing below Fort Griswold). 

In Groton, visitors can walk to Fort Griswold, site of one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War on Sept. 6., 1781, where traitor Benedict Arnold sealed his infamy; climb the 166 steps to the top of Groton Monument, the young country’s first obelisk, which provides panoramic views from 300 feet of both sides of the lower Thames and Long Island Sound; and the Avery-Copp house in the Groton Bank National Register Historic District, a colonial home furnished with what the original inhabitants used daily where costumed guides lead tours.

Expanding the Trail’s Footprint

In the near future the Submarine Force Museum and the USS Nautilus will be added to the Groton landing sites, and eventually the new U.S. Coast Guard Museum in New London, steps from City Pier, will bring a modern element to a decidedly historic enterprise.

Not mere relics of history, the sites on this waterborne trail also provide educational components. At Fort Trumbull State Park and Museum, the Visitors Center includes interactive exhibits and theaters on both floors. And the harbor cruise boats are more than just vehicles to transport visitors between the sites.

Throughout the summer, narrated boat tours explore various aspects of the river’s history. Topics include Mohegan Life on the Thames, the African American Experience on the Thames, and the Thames’ role in U.S. military history, from the Revolutionary War through the current era of nuclear powered submarines built at Electric Boat. Additional topics include Life During The Gilded Age and Tales From the Whaling Era.

In addition, the Thames River Heritage Park Foundation has other activities throughout the summer. There’s a Happy Hour cruise every Friday, Full Moon cruises on July 2 and 31, August 1, 29, and 30, and September 28-29. There’s also an hour-long cruise for the fireworks on July 8 during Sailfest.

“It’s like a wine tasting,” said Foley. “You get a little taste of everything.”

301 Thames St, Groton, CT 06340, United States