Groton and New London, CT on the Thames

Lighthouse warning New London Ledge

Two Colonial seaports with easy access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Of Connecticut’s several rivers emptying into Long Island Sound, the Thames is one of the larger ones. Unlike England’s which is pronounced “tems”, this is spoken as spelled, with the “h” and to rhyme with James. Two cities guard the opposing banks; New London on the west and Groton on the east. Just offshore to the south sits New London Ledge Light. This classic example of a square, red brick beacon was constructed in 1909 after years of dickering about its position and architecture.

Groton’s claim to fame is its participation in maritime history. Long ago, it was home to large wooden whalers that left these shores for sometimes years at sea, bringing their bounty home to be processed. Like many other whaling towns, the captains’ stately homes still dot the water’s edge. Some dock areas are functioning today, though more regional fishing replaces the old whaling. On the New London side, shipyards and chandleries hold forth, as well as the high-speed passenger ferries to Block Island, RI. Car ferries leave here for Long Island’s Orient Point. See below for routes and fares.

Car ferryboat approaching dock

Aside: Avoid our error. In the rush to grab a seat in the bow, we locked the car with the keys inside. We were parked up against the hull on the second auto deck with one window open about eight inches. Panic! All I could wonder was if we would have to go back and forth across the Sound until AAA managed to meet us at one end, and would we be charged for each trip? Luckily, my husband squeezed over the window and saved the day.

Groton’s main attraction is its submarine base.

General Dynamics’ Electric Boat division employs many local and nearby residents building our nuclear-powered boats. Some may question the term “boat”, but we are assured by the old-timers here, most of whom spent their lives working at EB, that “boat” was the term they still use. Others have moved on to “ship”, so either is correct.

Because of the military sensitivity of the work, there are no tours at EB, however two or three miles up the river the Navy’s Submarine Force Library and Museum is a must-see, especially with children (of all ages). This is home to the U.S.S. Nautilus and is open for self-guided audio tours every day except Tuesday. No food is available on site, but visitors are encouraged to bring a picnic to enjoy overlooking the Thames River.

The facility consists of indoor and outdoor exhibits. Several mini-subs are gathered outside. It’s hard to see how people could survive in these, and indeed, many didn’t. Some were built for suicide missions, being nothing more than a man-driven torpedo. Today mini-subs are equipped for survival and used in underwater exploration, such as investigating shipwrecks and/or airplane crashes and structural defects in bridges and bulkheads. The U.S.S. Nautilus is tied up at the dock. It is an impressive sight; makes you proud to be on its team.

The library and museum building is handicap-accessible for the most part. The displays are well-marked. You’ll read the story of submarine flags and insignia and how they kept track of their record hits on enemy shipping. It takes a special person to live under the sea for long periods of time, and the beauty of the nuclear subs is their ability to remain submerged far longer than any vessel with an earlier type of propulsion. The submariner’s loyalty and dedication can be seen in the high number of retirees who remain or return to this area to live.

U.S.S. Nautilus Passageway

U.S.S. Nautilus Passageway

Fact: “The USS NAUTILUS steamed 60,000 miles on a lump of Uranium the size of a golf ball. A diesel powered submarine would have required 3,000,000 gallons or 300 railway tank cars of oil.”from Submarine Systems and Procedures, Submarine Facts by the USS Cod.organization.

America’s love of submarines traces its roots to pre-Civil War. While subs were being built experimentally throughout the country, primarily in the South, the first warship sinking of record occurred when the Hunley sank the U.S.S. Housatinic off Charleston, South Carolina on February 17, 1864.

Submarines in the Civil War by Chuck Viet is a fascinating and complete history of their development and participation – a far cry from today’s nuclear versions.

University of Connecticut – Avery Point Campus

UCONN campus

Project Oceanology

If only! If this campus had been here in the 1940s, I would have stayed in my native Connecticut instead of opting for Massachusetts. Perched on Avery Point,  the property was the estate of Morton Plant, whose money was made in railroads, hotels and steamships. The state acquired ownership in the 1930’s and leased it to the U. S. Coast Guard during WWII. In 1967, it became the Southeastern Campus of  UCONN.
The program here is geared towards everything marine, with classes for undergraduates and graduates. Students have classroom, as well as on site learning aboard their research vessel. From their website:UCONN’s Avery Point campus is a center of excellence for marine and maritime studies. In addition to offering a range of introductory and advanced courses, we provide four-year degrees in Coastal Studies, Maritime Studies and American Studies.

Overlooking Long Island Sound, the Avery Point campus is home to the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program, Project Oceanology, the National Undersea Research Center, and the Long Island Sound Resource Center.”  As I said earlier, “if only!”

Avery Point

Other nearby activities: Eastern Point beach is just to to the right of this photo. It is a small public beach with parking fees during the summer. Areas with water views are wheelchair accessible. It has showers, picnic tables and a concession stand. Seasonal supervision and shallow water make this the perfect beach for families with young children. See more:

When the weather cooperates, Avery Point is a popular place for weddings. On clear days you can easily see across to Fishers Island and The Race – a cut where boats can pass from Long Island Sound to reach Block Island and the Atlantic Ocean. Sailors learn very quickly to plan a trip through The Race to coincide with the tide. The currents can reach four knots, depending on the phases of the moon. Couple that with wind fore or aft and you better have either the ability to do six knots, or the time to sit it out.

Aside: It is redundant to say “knots per hour” simply because a knot means “nautical miles per hour”. A nautical mile is longer than a statute (land) mile. For a simple explanation of the conversion see Boat Safe.

New London Ledge Light from UNCONN campus

There is a public Par 3 golf course on Shennecosset Rd. between the Groton airport and the University campus. Birch Plain Golf Course

For other means of transportation:

By boat – power or sail (up to 110′) – The new Pine Island Marina is open and ready to serve the yachting public with full-service capability. They are also offering yacht brokerage, slip rental, and a ship’s store.

There is also a public boat launching ramp on Shennecosset Road, near the Marina.

By private plane – Groton’s airport is within minutes of the town center. It is served by several auto rental companies. Information: 155 Tower Avenue, New London, CT 06340
(860) 445-8549.

RV campgrounds are in nearby communities, but not right in Groton. TheSubmarine Force Museum allows RVs to park during open hours in their lot.

Japanese Flowering Cherry

Come visit Groton, Connecticut.
It’s a small, friendly shoreline town with many big cities nearby (Boston, New York, Hartford). It is served by the Shoreline Railroad, part of Amtrak, via New London and Mystic railroad stations.

All photos unless otherwise noted are © 2011 Gail Hunter

Further information about these subjects:
New London Ledge Lighthouse History
Block Island, RI – by Ferry Information
Fare Information from New London to Orient Point, NY

Complete information on the Navy’s Submarine Force Library and Museum.
NAUTILUS, HISTORY AND PHOTOS by Scott Hanko

Google Map -Submarine Force Library and Museum to UCONN Avery Point Campus

Links to related Striped Pot articles:
New England – Planning for a visit
Spring Skiing in “The Bush” – Sugarbush, VT
The Granite Carvers of Hope Cemetery, Barre, VT
Vermont’s world-famous granite quarries

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