The Mystical Allure of the Sea

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

On the History Highway, Day 41

MYSTIC, Connecticut—In choosing to focus on history as we travel America's highways and byways on this trip, we have repeatedly been reminded that all too often, our notion of history is focused through the lens of political events.  Thanks to a bounty of specialized museums, we are broadening our scope and learning to appreciate other aspects of our national story.


At Mystic, CT, today we visited Mystic Seaport, which bills itself as "the Museum of America and the Sea."  Not only does the museum have an extensive collection of ships and boats, it is also home to a complete 19th century seafaring village.  The shops of the village house artisans who ply their trades as their predecessors did in the 1800s. 

Cooper at work
In the village cooperage, we met Mike, who was shaping a slat for a bucket.  Wondering how a young guy ended up with a 19th century job, we asked whether he had imagined himself growing up to be a cooper.  "No," he replied, "I actually wanted to be a blacksmith when I was a kid."  And that was the training he obtained and the skill that earned him a spot as a craftsman at Mystic Seaport.  Since he's been on the staff, he has also been learning coopering and the craft of sailmaking and works at the various trades depending on the day of the week.

Mystic's on-site shipyard
The museum has its own working shipyard on site, where specialists repair and restore the many historic ships in the collection.  One of the most fascinating projects is the massive restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the last existing wooden whaling vessel.  Built in 1841, the Morgan sailed the seas for 80 years, chasing the great mammals and escaping fire, cannibals and Confederate raiders.

Charles W. Morgan in restoration
The 113-ft ship arrived at Mystic in 1941 and underwent an initial restoration in 1968.  This first refurbishment was intended to allow the ship to sit at the dock as a museum piece.  In 2010, a more ambitious project began to actually make the Morgan seaworthy again.  More than two years later, much remains to be done on this multi-million dollar project, and skilled shipwrights labor daily in pursuit of the goal of seeing the leviathan sail away again.

Among its collection of maritime equipment and memorabilia, the museum gave visitors an up-close look at a lighthouse light.  Actually, this was what is called a fourth order lighthouse lens.  Invented by Frenchman Augustine Fresnel in 1822, the revolutionary Fresnel lens design employs curved panes of glass to concentrate light from a single source into a beam that can be projected a great distance. 


The lenses come in different sizes from 1st order to 7th order (smallest).  This 4th-order lens weighs about 500 pounds and can project a beacon of light up to 15 miles away to enable approaching ships to gauge their proximity to shore, even on a starless night.

Mystic Seaport is certainly a place where you can learn as much maritime history as you have time available.  We were there for a couple of hours but could have easily filled four or more hours if we had arrived sooner.  Tickets were a bit pricy at $24 ($21 with a AAA discount), but with all the village had to offer, we were not disappointed.

More Photos from Today

Planing timbers for the Morgan
Stepping back in time
Mast hoopmaking shop