June 22, 2019
New London Revival
New London is nothing if not resilient. For over three centuries, this city on the lower Thames River has endured, rebuilt, and reinvented itself, starting with its Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of Benedict Arnold’s 1781 sacking of the town. New London recovered to become the country’s third-largest whaling port, only to see its whale-oil fortunes decline after the Civil War. Most recently, following decades of hard times that saw the downtown area all but shuttered, the city is again rebounding, this time capitalizing on its young and creative population, rich history, and restored waterfront.
As part of its mission to attract boaters to the city, New London offers a mooring field off Custom House Pier, along with a free dinghy dock and a secure Visitor’s Center with restrooms and showers, all within easy walking distance of the downtown shops and restaurants. In 2013, work was completed on City Pier, which offers overnight slips on six floating docks with power and water. All of this is very reasonably priced, by the way, although visiting boaters should note that river traffic, including the numerous ferries and large commercial ships, can make overnight stays a bit rolly and loud for some folks.
Shaw Cove Treats
Those who desire the comforts of a full-service marina can always head for protected Shaw Cove, just south of Custom House Pier. An Amtrak swing bridge guards the entrance to the cove, so you’ll have to hail the bridge operator to gain access. Once inside, you’ll find one of the oldest and most welcoming boating facilities in the country—Crocker’s Boatyard. Crocker’s is still family-owned, and features transient slips, a fuel dock, haul-out service, repair, WiFi, a pool, laundry, showers and just about anything else you could want.
On the opposite side of the cove is Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock, a local institution where you can pull into a vacant slip and dine on mouthwatering fried seafood, chowder, lobster, burgers, ice cream, and other tasty fare. With trains roaring past and boats pulling in and out of slips, kids naturally love this place. It’s named for Captain Thomas Scott, who built nearby Ledge Lighthouse and Race Rock Light.
Shaw Cove also puts you within walking distance of Fort Trumbull State Park, which sits on a grassy promontory overlooking the harbor and the river mouth. While the fort features an inviting wooden pier that juts far into the Thames, dockage is not allowed; the pier is strictly reserved for fishermen.
The Fort Trumbull Visitor’s Center educates adults and kids with interactive kiosks that allow history buffs to build their own forts and detect submarines. And the fort itself—an Egyptian Revival design built between 1839 and 1852, but which never fired a cannon in defense—affords marvelous views of the river.
From the fort’s ramparts, it’s easy to see why New London has long been attractive to mariners. The Thames River entrance is wide and deep, with virtually no hazards to navigation. It’s a big reason Groton, opposite New London on the east bank of the river, was selected as the home for Electric Boat, the primary builder of nuclear submarines for the U.S. Navy. You can learn more about submarines, and tour an actual sub, at the USS Albacore Museum, just north of the I-95 bridges in Groton.
New London’s proximity to Long Island Sound also makes it a transportation and shipping hub. It’s minutes from a major highway, home to a waterfront Amtrak station, and relatively close to Block Island, Fishers Island and eastern Long Island. The city’s location naturally appeals to recreational boaters who want to pick up or drop off visiting friends and family.
Or stick around. Once virtually deserted, the New London of today has a very different vibe and look. Though some storefronts remain empty, many have been converted into bars, art galleries and intriguing emporiums. The city also boasts a host of ethnic restaurants ranging from Thai to Indian, as well as funky shops specializing in everything from tattoos and jewelry to comic books and antiques.
Of course, the many cultural and historic icons are a big part of the New London experience. In the heart of downtown, steps from the waterfront, is the Custom House Maritime Museum. Built in 1833-35 by Robert Mills (designer of the Washington Monument), the building is home to the oldest continuously operating customs house in the country, but now mainly serves as an educational facility. Through the Custom House’s massive, burnished doors—fashioned from original planks of the USS Constitution—passed cargo, contraband and illegal slaves, including those from the Amistad, which was brought to New London following the infamous 1839 mutiny. The story of the Amistad is told in a terrific exhibit on the second floor of the museum, which also contains Fresnel lenses from nearby lighthouses, tin foghorns and a collection of beautifully preserved diving helmets from the early 19th century.
Also of interest is the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, housed in a 70-year-old neoclassical building set on 32 landscaped acres just north of the downtown area. An archway frames each gallery showcasing mostly American art—lots of Connecticut impressionists and paintings from the Hudson River School. Nearby are the Federalist brick buildings of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where you can explore the convoluted history of the Coast Guard in the modest Coast Guard Museum (a much larger museum is being planned for the downtown area).
There’s more to see and do south of downtown. Guarding the river’s western entrance is the much-photographed salt-shaker-shaped New London Harbor Light, built in 1801 and mentioned by Eugene O’Neill in his comedic play Ah Wilderness. The light is now owned by the New London Maritime Society.
And speaking of the famous playwright, you can visit Monte Cristo Cottage, O’Neill’s summer boyhood home in the 1890s. Visitors familiar with Long Days Journey into Night will recognize the parlor, set exactly as it is on stage.
Yes, New London is positively brimming with things to do and see—and there’s more on the way. As long as New London continues to grow from its nautical roots, its future looks bright indeed.