From the arrival of the Pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620 to the present, the coasts of New England have been the site of defensive forts and the home base for commerce, fishing, whaling, and ship building industries.
Maritime history and industry are on display in every state (even Vermont has the 110-mile-long Lake Champlain, a corridor for exploration and commerce for 400 years). See below to learn about the sites of “Old Ironsides” and “The Perfect Storm,” historic lighthouses, the Naval War College and much more.
Mystic Seaport is among the nation’s leading maritime museums. Visitors can climb aboard historic tall ships, such as the Charles W. Morgan, the world's last wooden whale ship; the L.A. Dunton, an early 20th-century New England fishing vessel; and the 1908 steamboat Sabino, all of them National Historic Landmarks. A re-created 19th-century coastal village is peopled by ship smiths, coopers, woodcarvers, and riggers, all of them craftsmen in the maritime trades. The seaport also hosts many seasonal events, from seafood festivals to Christmas tours. Open year-round.
There’s no getting around it: submarines are eerie and, to many of us, fascinating. At the USS Nautilus & Submarine Force Museum in Groton visitors can board the world's first nuclear-powered submarine and peer into the lives of the men who sail the ocean depths in their "sharks of steel." The museum recounts the development of the silent service from Bushnell's Turtle, used in the Revolutionary War, to modern submarines. Open year-round; call ahead.
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy is home to the Eagle, a three-masted barque that is the primary training ship for the Coast Guard Academy. Tucked away on the grounds of the academy, the Coast Guard Museum contains artifacts that span the guard’s 200-year history. Featuring everything from models of a series of early steamships to the 270-foot cutter that plies the waters of today, the craftsmanship captures the changes in ship design over the last 200 years. Open daily, year-round; closed weekends during winter, spring, and summer break.
Built in 1833, the Custom House remains the oldest operating custom house in the nation. Robert Mills, America's first federal architect, designed the building. A classic Greek Revival granite building, the front doors are made of wood from the USS Constitution. In 1839, U.S. Customs played an important role in the early steps to freedom of Africans brought to New London with the slave ship Amistad. Open daily April through December.
Located on the waterfront in historic Essex, the Connecticut River Museum is the perfect place to explore the heritage and experience the Connecticut River. The museum grounds offer an exceptional vantage point to see bald eagles, migratory birds, and other waterfowl. The museum’s galleries are filled with art and artifacts from dinosaurs to Dutch explorers and from Native American canoes to the first American submarine. Open year-round, Tuesday through Sunday.
Stonington Harbor Light was once the beacon for the many vessels approaching Stonington's harbor from Long Island Sound. Six rooms of exhibits testify to the rich and varied history of this coastal region through exhibits depicting the lives of Stonington's fishermen and farmers, merchants and shipbuilders, pottery makers, blacksmiths and many other trades. Visitors enjoy climbing the old iron steps of the tower for an exhilarating view in all directions. Open May through November.
The history of naval warfare is the principal theme of the Naval War College Museum, which is located in Founders Hall (1820), the original site of the College (1884 - 1889) and a National Historic Landmark. In its broadest application, this encompasses theories and concepts of sea power, international and maritime law, foreign policy formulation, diplomacy, and naval operations. Open year-round; seasonal hours.
Originally located at Fort Adams, The Museum of Yachting merged with IYRS in 2007 & moved to the Aquidneck Mill Building on its Thames Street campus. Together the two organizations bring to the public eye the beauty and excitement which has led sailors to the water for centuries. It is a lively organization which reflects the international flavor of yachting in Newport, dedicated to the preservation & teaching of the traditional skills, documents, vessels, and artifacts which record and describe the history and development of yachting around the world.
Housed in the 1762 Brick Market, exhibits shown here at the Museum of Newport History bring to life aspects of Newport’s history from the 1600s through the Gilded Age. Decorative arts, artifacts of everyday life, graphics, historic photographs, and audio-visual programs tell Newport's story. The museum contains paintings, Colonial silver, the printing press used by James Franklin, and much more. Open seasonally; call ahead.
The Herreshoff Marine Museum contains a collection of 35 classic and power yachts from the Golden Age of Yachting to today. The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, a major player during yachting's heyday, built eight America's Cup defenders from 1893 to 1934. It also built America's first torpedo. Open: May to October.
The profile of the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), at the Charlestown Navy Yard, thrills visitors with her antiquity, grace, and role in American naval history. At the neighboring USS Constitution Museum, galleries take visitors on a 200-year voyage. Discover how Old Ironsides has remained undefeated since 1797; see how sailors climbed 200 foot masts; learn how a wooden hull earned the nickname Old Ironsides. During the summer months USS Constitution is open for limited tour hours. Check the ship's website for details.
At the mouth of Boston Harbor, the Hull Lifesaving Museum traces the dramatic history of organized lifesaving. Features are the Boat Room, with lifesaving apparatus; the Edward Rowe Snow Room, with lighthouse models and exhibits about Boston Harbor; the Children's Navigation Loft, a play attic for youngsters with a climb-on sailing ship; and the Observation Cupola, with stunning views of Boston Harbor. Open year-round; seasonal operating hours.
The Hart Nautical Gallery serves as a showcase for the museum’s ship models and examples of ocean engineering technology developed at MIT. The gallery has a collection of ship models from ancient to modern; hull half-sections of various boats, ships, submarines, and sail craft; and modern displays. Look for real anchors on loan from the United States Navy. Open daily, year-round.
The Cape Cod National Seashore is a spectacularly beautiful expanse of beaches, dune lands, lighthouses, museums, and visitor centers that describe the rugged maritime history of seafaring people living 70 miles into the rough Atlantic. From the earliest years of European settlement, the waters around Cape Cod were a hazard to navigation. One response to this was construction of lighthouses. The first on the Cape was Highland Light in Truro, authorized by George Washington in 1796. Other Cape Cod lighthouses worth visiting are Race Point Light in Provincetown and Nauset Light in Eastham.
Start your town at the national seashore’s excellent visitor centers. Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham offers orientation movies, a bookstore, and a museum. The Province Lands Visitor Center, near Provincetown, has an observation deck with 360-degree view of the Province Lands dunes, the Outer Beach and the Atlantic Ocean.
New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park preserves and interprets America's 19th-century whaling story. Herman Melville, author of the epic novel Moby-Dick, would recognize many of the 19th-century buildings and sites that make up the park today. Park sites include the New Bedford Whaling Museum (see below); a 19th-century whaling merchant's home; Seamen's Bethel, a house of prayer; and the schooner Ernestina, an Arctic expeditionary vessel. Most sites open year-round.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum brings to life the whaling era and the history of the local area. It houses the most extensive collection of art, artifacts, and manuscripts pertaining to American whaling in the age of sail from the late 18th century to the early 20th, when sailing ships dominated merchant trade and whaling. Open year-round.
Battleship Cove invites visitors to experience firsthand what it was like to serve on board a Navy warship in World War II. You can sound the diving horn on Submarine Lionfish before you slip below the sea or you can crank the handwheels on Big Mamie's 40-mm guns as you knock enemy planes from the sky. Anyone for die-hard naval history buff to a casual enthusiast of military hardware will find much to learn here. Open year-round; hours vary seasonally.
Plimoth Plantation describes the history of the native Wampanoag and Colonial English peoples of 17th-century Plymouth. Its four major exhibits are the Wampanoag home site, the 1627 English Village, and the Crafts Center, and the Mayflower II, a reproduction modeled after the original Mayflower. The Wampanoag home site explores Wampanoag culture and history. The 1627 English Village is a re-creation of the farming town built by English colonists. At the Crafts Center, skilled artisans reproduce objects used in the village and onboard Mayflower II. Mayflower II has been recreated to show what the original 17th-century vessel was like. Open late March to late November.
The U.S. Naval and Shipbuilding Museum is home to the USS Salem, the world's only preserved heavy cruiser. The museum is located in the former Quincy Fore River Shipyard, once one of the nation's largest shipbuilding enterprises. An exhibit celebrates the Navy SEALs. Open weekends.
Nantucket Life Saving Museum describes the human drama of man's efforts against the relentless sea and is testimony to those early Nantucketers who saved hundreds of lives in and near the island's treacherous shores and shoals. Open daily June 15 through the Columbus Day weekend.
The historic buildings, wharves, and reconstructed tall ship at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site tell the stories of the sailors, Revolutionary War privateers, and merchants who brought the riches of the Far East to America. The star of the site is the tall ship Friendship. Launched in 1797, Friendship made voyages to India, China, South America, the Caribbean, England, Germany, the Mediterranean, and Russia and eventually was captured by the British sloop of war HMS Rosamond in September 1812. Open daily, year-round.
Peabody Essex Museum’s maritime art and history collection, begun in 1803, is the finest in America. With 30,000 paintings, drawings, and prints, the collection also encompasses 20,000 maritime objects dating from the 17th through the early 20th centuries, including ship models, marine decorative arts, tools, weapons, navigational instruments, and ship and yacht plans. Open daily, year-round.
The Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center is the only working historic waterfront in the Northeast that combines a historic marine railway where wooden vessels are hauled and repaired, a Gulf of Maine aquarium, vessels tracing the fishing history of Gloucester, kane exhibits about the construction of wooden boats. A featured exhibit is the Eleanor, a reproduction of one of the ships that participated in the Boston Tea Party. Open daily, Memorial Day to Labor Day; open weekends, Labor Day to Memorial Day.
Custom House Maritime Museum displays the abundant and interesting maritime heritage of Newburyport, the eastern seacoast’s first major commercial port. The museum’s collection includes objects brought back from the Orient and the South Seas, maritime art, clipper ship models, displays of famous shipwrecks, the history of the Coast Guard, and more. Open year-round, Thursday-Sunday.
Maine Maritime Academy, a Maine public college specializing in marine-related programs, welcomes nautical enthusiasts. Visitors are welcome to view the training ship State of Maine, the historic arctic schooner Bowdoin, a historic 50-caliber gun used on a merchant ship during World War II, Nutting Memorial Library, and the main dining room, where many ship models are on display.
Portland Head Light, the oldest lighthouse in Maine, has guided maritime traffic into Portland Harbor for more than 200 years. The Museum at Portland Head light, in the former lighthouse keepers’ quarters, chronicles the history of the lighthouse and Fort Williams, a military outpost for coastal defense next to the light station. The neighboring 90-acre Fort Williams Park offers picnic facilities, hiking, sports and recreation areas, historic fort structures, and ocean views. Open Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
The former Percy and Small Shipyard is now the site of the family-oriented Maine Maritime Museum, which collects materials on the early days of Maine’s shipbuilding industry. From watercraft and lobstering to shipbuilding and sea trade, visitors hear stories about dangerous voyages to distant lands and see how a shipbuilder’s family lived in the 1890s. Highlights include a life-size sculpture of the largest wooden sailing vessel ever built; seasonal river cruises; and a children’s play area. Open daily, year-round.
Founded in 1936, the Penobscot Marine Museum illustrates what it was like to live and work on one of the great square-rigged ships in the last quarter of the 19th century, and to visit China when it truly was exotic. The museum is also known for its collection of fine 19th-century marine art, featuring painting by Thomas and James Buttersworth and Robert Salmon. Scrimshaw, figureheads, and art and artifacts date from the Great Age of Sail. Open Memorial Day to October 15.
The Maine Lighthouse Museum is the home of the largest collection of Fresnel lighthouse lenses and the most important landmark collection of lighthouse artifacts and Coast Guard memorabilia in the United States. The museum's gift store is the source for lighthouse models and miniatures, replicas, clothing, gifts, art, toys, memorabilia, and exclusive regional favorites. Open seasonally.
Adjacent to the town's municipal offices, the Kittery Historical and Naval Museum’s exhibits highlight the maritime influences that have shaped Kittery, from settlers who moved to the mainland from the Isles of Shoals through the development of the shipbuilding trade and the grand hotels of Kittery Point. Attractions include at 14-foot replica of John Paul Jones's ship Ranger, shipbuilding tools, models, collections of scrimshaw and Bellamy carvings, and a Fresnel lens from Boon Island Light. Open June through Columbus Day.
The Moosehead Marine Museum in downtown Greenville features the steamship Katahdin, affectionately known as The Kate. The ship was built in 1914 by Bath Iron Works, and was one of five ships that provided transportation services on Moosehead Lake. It provided services for the logging industry and transporting visitors to sporting camps and the grand hotels of its era. The Kate offers steamship tours of Moosehead Lake from Memorial Day through the fall foliage season. Open seasonally; call ahead.
The Portsmouth Harbour Trail offers a one-hour walk that immerses visitors in the history of this busy waterfront town, The trail passes more than 70 points of scenic and historic significance in Portsmouth. Stops along the trail include Market Square and North Church, the Athenaeum, Market Street, Merchants Row, USS Albacore, and other places. See great views of the Piscataqua River or take a boat tour out to the eerie Isles of Shoals.
The diesel-electric submarine USS Albacore is the featured exhibit at the Port of Portsmouth Maritime Museum on the shoreline of the Piscataqua River. She is in a permanent dry berth and is accessible at deck level through her pressure hull forward and aft. Albacore is maintained by the Portsmouth Submarine Memorial Association as she looked after her last rebuilding.
The Portsmouth Historical Society interprets the history of Portsmouth through its collections of furniture, paintings, ceramics, costumes, and maritime artifacts at the John Paul Jones House on Middle Street. (John Paul Jones, the celebrated naval hero of the American Revolution, is believed to have rented a room in this house during 1777.) Portsmouth was well known as a center for the furniture trade in the 18th and 19th centuries and the society displays some exceptional examples of Portsmouth craftsmanship. Open seasonally; call ahead.
The New Hampshire Boat Museum honors the New Hampshire Lakes region's boating heritage and focuses on maritime history relating to the boating history of the United States in general and the Lakes region in particular. The museum features many examples of vintage mahogany and antique boats. Open Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
The Champlain Valley's cultural history began nearly 11,300 years ago, when Paleoindian hunter-gatherers moved into the region. Since the arrival of Europeans, the Champlain Valley has played an important role in North American history. The lake has served as a highway for of communication, commerce, and people. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum brings to life the stories of Lake Champlain and its people through nautical exploration, hands-on exhibits, and learning adventures. Visitors to the museum can view original small watercraft, learn about wooden shipwrecks in North America, climb aboard the working Revolutionary War gunboat replica Philadelphia II, and much more. Open mid-May to mid-October.