The Pequot Indian tribe initially controlled the area of Mystic Connecticut. A couple of wars later, settlers reached a treaty that allowed them to settle in the area. The settlement grew rapidly from the 1640s and the Pequot Trail had evolved into a major road that facilitated both settlement and trade.
Mystic Becomes a Shipbuilding Powerhouse
Mystic, with its protected river, became a seafaring city. By the late 18th century, the city had begun to build ships. By the Civil War, it had five large shipyards, building a total of more than 600 by the early 20th century.
This shipbuilding heritage is commemorated and preserved in the Mystic Seaport Museum—our primary reason for visiting the city.
Mystic Seaport Museum
The Mystic Seaport Museum has the largest restoration shipyard on the East Coast. It contains a reconstructed colonial-era village that uses buildings that were moved to the museum from across the region.
Many free tours of various areas are offered as part of the admission price. We began with a half-hour guided tour of the shipyard. We were given a high-level view of the shipbuilding process including:
- An overview of the advantages and limitations of each type of wood used to build the ships
- How the wood was cut and treated
- How masts were (and continue to be) created from laminates
- The multi-stage process of weaving ropes, wrapping them in canvas, and treating them with tar to waterproof them.
But regardless of how well the wooden ships are built and maintained, continued exposure to the elements (especially large storms and arctic voyages), shipworms, and wood-boring gribble worms require periodic restoration, not to speak of regular Coast Guard recertification.
The shipyard had some major restoration projects during our visit: the Charles Morgan (whaler that completed 37 voyages, including the last whaling voyage by any American ship); a Viking ship; and the Mayflower II (which is on the National Register of Historic Places).
The Reconstructed Village
We then walked around the colonial-era village. Buildings include a drugstore, grocery store, schoolhouse, church, several homes, and even a temperance hall. Each is furnished with period furniture and displays and many are staffed by volunteers to explain the roles of the building and answer questions.
Another section contains several types of shops that served ships and shipbuilders including a ship carver, cooper, shipsmith, and a ship’s chandlery. There was also an oyster company that discussed the boats used for oystering, the evolution from trawling to farming oysters, and how oyster catches were regulated from the 1760s so as to preserve stocks.
Exhibits and Displays
The Seaport also contained several displays, including those of small sailing boats, ship figureheads, decorative arts that were inspired by the, sea and folk art created by crews on multi-year voyages, including numerous examples of scrimshaw and whalebone carvings, including that of a highly detailed three-masted schooner. Visitors can board and tour several renovated ships and even take a short, ½-hour sightseeing cruise on one. There was even a planetarium (closed during our visit, but presumably explained the basics of celestial navigation).
Learning More About Whaling
Most interesting was the whaling exhibit. A video explained the history of whaling, the nature of whaling voyages, and the grueling and dangerous work. It explained the role of whale oil for lighting, as a fuel, and as a lubricant and how a single large whale, whose oil-rich blubber, which accounted for 60-80 percent of the animal’s weight, could yield 3,500 gallons of oil. And how sperm whales, in particular, were particularly prized for their ultra-high quality spermaceti oil, which was used to provide clean oil for home use, versus dirtier oils that were used in factories, mills and as lubricants. It also explained and showed examples of how other parts of the whale were used for other functions, such as whale bones use in corsets, baleen in clothing and umbrellas and teeth in chess pieces, walking stick handles and other items as ivory. It also had a “suit” that whalers wore.
The crew was paid in shares. For example, the captain typically received 1/15th of the proceeds, down to a cabin boy, who might receive 1/400th. It profiled the process from the time a whale is sighted and the chase boats are lowered into the water, to the harpooning of the whale and then waiting hours as the whale pulled the boat miles from the snip, sometimes, pulling or otherwise sinking the boat, sometimes taking the boat so far that it was lost, but usually, tiring the whale to the point that the boat could row next to the exhausted creature, pierce its lungs and tow it back the ship. The ship, as we learned and saw on tour of the Charles Morgan, was essentially a self-contained factory with facilities for dismembering the head and stripping and rendering blubber into oil, which was then transferred to barrels for storage. And, judging from the quarters, being a captain is better than being part of the crew.
The development of new technology, such as explosive harpoons, harpoon cannons, and steam- and later diesel-powered ships only served to make whaling even more efficient and resulted in some 2 million whales being killed up to the time that petroleum eliminated the need for whale oil and artificial materials substituted for baleen and whalebone.
Mystic and New London Old Towns
We walked Mystic’s pretty, historic downtown, over its famous drawbridge, along its scenic shoreline, along some of its commercial and historic residential streets, and by Mystic Pizza (made famous in the Julia Roberts movie). Then it was time to stop for a refreshing Mystic IPA at the extremely popular Bank & Bridge Brew pub which is located in a large, colonnaded bank building, complete with safes that are used for tables.
We also drove through the rather depressed city of New London, strolling its waterfront (whose development was severely restrained by its being separated from the city by railroad tracks), through its downtown and two residential historic districts and past the four Greek Revival homes of Whale Oil Row.
Mystic Area Restaurants
We had time for only lunch and dinner in Mystic. Although we planned to go to the ever-popular S&P Oyster Bar, we found the menu at Red 36 more aligned with our lunch desires.
- Red 36. From our lovely upper patio table overlooking a pleasure craft harbor, we began our nice lunch with briny, raw Duxbury oysters before moving on to steamers and then fried belly clams, washing it all down with a local, Cotrell Mystic Bridge IPA.
- The Fisherman. We more than satisfied our fried food craving at this restaurant that overlooked a scenic pond in neighboring Groten. Both the beer-batter fried softshell crabs and fried belly clams were acceptable, but neither memorable. From the limited wine list, we chose a pleasant, crisp, 2021 Pascal Bouchard Chablis.