America’s Seafaring And Shipbuilding Past On Full Display In Mystic, Connecticut

You might have a passing mystical tremor while leaning over Mystic old iron bridge on Main Street gazing out over the placid harbor while the stars twinkle and the silver half-moon glows, but the town’s name has nothing mystical about it: It comes, like so much else in Connecticut, including “Connecticut,” from a Pequod Indian name, missi-tuck, referring to a large body of water driven by waves and wind. Which is an apt description of this beautiful seaside New England town that lies two-and-a-half hours from New York City, less than two from Boston, an hour from both Providence and New Haven. Unless, of course, you’re headed there Friday afternoon this summer when the traffic along I-95 can be fearsome.

Which, in its own way, is a positive sign of a rebounding of tourism, and on weekends Mystic is jammed with people who come to stroll the downtown streets and visit the extraordinary Mystic Seaport Museum. Like most other tourist destinations in New England—Cape Cod, Newport, Nantucket—Mystic’s Main Street and its tributaries are lined with the usual fudge and ice cream shops, the inevitable Black Dog clothing store, jewelry and tchotchke emporiums, but there are some unique places, too, including a first-rate Army & Navy store and Mystic Knotwork that sells hand-tied nautical knot bracelets, coasters, ornaments, door mats, wreaths and more. (There are 40 more shops just north of town called Olde Mistick Village mall, and the gargantuan and grotesque Foxwoods Resort & Casino north of I-95 has a dreary outlet conglomeration.)

To see all of downtown Mystic won’t take you more than a couple of hours of easy walking back and forth across that historic Bascule bridge, built in 1922. There are guided tours available of the town and the waterways—including a 90-minute Mystic River cruise on a 1947 lacquered cruise boat—as well as options for paddle boarding.

One of my favorite spots to visit is the Mystic Museum of Art MMoA), established a century ago as the crucible for artists both local and come from afar who found that the congenial waterscapes, rocky coast, farmlands and stone walls took them away from the influence of the Academic art world of the cities. The founder of the group was Charles H. Davis and included Henry Ward Ranger, Robert Brackman, George Albert Thompson, Y.E. Soderberg and many others, whose styles ranged from the naturalistic to impressionistic. This summer there is a three-month exhibition of 50 works by these artists.

Mystic, with its protected river, was an ideal setting for shipbuilding during the whaling era of the 19th century, and its history is magnificently preserved and restored at the Mystic Seaport Museum within walking distance of town. While there is a serious scholarly repository of history, documents and lore here (2 million artifacts, 1 million photos, 75,000 books), the exhibits are actually spread outdoors over 19 acres as a recreated New England coastal village that gives a strong sense of the community in its simplest houses and its more majestic ones fueled by shipbuilders’ wealth. The Museum opened in 1929 to “inspire an enduring connection to the American maritime experience,” based on more than 500 historic watercraft, including four National Historic Landmark vessels, most notably the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, America’s oldest commercial ship still in existence, and the David Crockett, the fastest ship of its kind. You can also watch ongoing restorations (they refitted the rotting Mayflower II here) in the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard, where the old-time prized artisans’ handiwork ranges from metalwork at a blacksmith shop to crafting rope rigging, and all chores in between, many performed with 19th century tools. Nearby there is a fine Mystic Aquarium that has given a home to endangered species of fish and penguins, including New England’s only beluga whales.

During the summer there is an onboard camp where children as young as ten years old actually live, eat and sleep onboard one of the old vessels where they learn the rudiments of sailing.

It is impossible to underrate the critical importance of the whaling industry to Mystic and vice-versa, when the town became wealthy as a shipbuilder. It was not until the onset of industrial society that anyone knew the myriad uses for which whale oil was a revolutionary lubricant, preservative, lamplighter (better and cheaper than tallow for candles) and soap, even margarine. So profitable was whaling that, despite the unbelievable rigors undergone by the ships’ crews, who might be out sailing for two years at a time, the great animal was nearly wiped out, saved somewhat by the invention of petroleum, which replaced whale oil by the late 19th century.

Many fast-moving masted clipper ships stilled plied the oceans as commercial merchants, but they, too, became extinct with the invention of steam powered ships. The farms around Mystic continued to be important for agriculture, especially at a time in the 18th century when the average family had nine children.

Now that tourism has become Mystic’s number one industry, the town officials have assiduously avoided being over taken by gentrification as have so many towns on Cape Cod, so that Mystic’s old buildings or various architectural styles remain true to historic precepts (although the number of telephone wires and poles along Main Street is an eyesore.) The town also admirably fast food franchises (and I’ll be reporting on the best places in town to eat next week).

There are no large hotels and few full-fledged inns, including the Inn at Mystic, set on 14 acres of greenery, outside of town, and downtown there is the Steamboat Inn with its own dock, the 1853 Spicer Mansion, and the Mermaid Inn B&B. We stayed at the Whaler’s Inn, just shy of the bridge, with 45 very comfortable rooms within five separate buildings, with several recently renovated suites. It’s a very handsome place, with period detail (though the plastic siding on the Stonington adjunct is wince making), and the front desk staff couldn’t be more helpful or knowledgeable about everything going on in the region. The lobby offers free coffee, water and cookies. The bathrooms are completely modern and well equipped, and the bedrooms equipped with antique-style phones along with HD TV.

Given the region’s rebound as a tourist attraction, I highly advise you visit mid-week, when things are quieter and more accessible, and I-95 is not such a traumatic endurance test.
Source: Forbes

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