Eastern Connecticut is well known for its long and rich historical legacy. But let’s start with the obvious question. What exactly is a heritage park?
Technically, a heritage park is a park without boundaries. Amy Perry, the executive director of the Thames River Heritage Park (TRHP), explains that the park is a collection of national and historic sites along two shores of the Thames River—Groton and New London—and includes restaurants, shops, galleries, monuments, attractions, theaters, and anything else within the scope of the river. This heritage park tells the story of our nation and our region over the last 400 years.
“The neat thing is that it is all linked by water taxi,” says Perry. “The water taxi today is integral to the park. It was created to be the transportation infrastructure of what will be a more robust experience as we grow the collaboration among 18 historic sites.”
For a day out to see the sights, visit the attractions, and have lunch or dinner, the water taxi eliminates the need to drive all over the place to accomplish this. And it provides a very affordable family outing. Children 3 and younger can ride free; ages 3 to 12 are $5; adults are $10.
Perry says, “That gets you a round trip hop-on, hop-off water taxi ride that you can pick up at one of the three landings.” The trip is a one-hour loop, starting at Fort Trumbull on the hour, going to City Pier and leaving there at 20 minutes past the hour, then on to Groton, departing that pier at 40 minutes past the hour and going back to Fort Trumbull. The water taxis run Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and holidays. Tickets may be purchased right on the boat or at the TRHP webste.
The water taxis are surplus U.S. Navy liberty boats, not like the typical water taxi you might find in a tourist area. Perry says they are authentic, and each has its own history, as well. The water taxi service is in its third season.
“We want families to appreciate that after visiting some historic sites, it doesn’t mean you’re done,” she says. “Stay and have lunch or visit a gallery.” The water taxi hours on Friday and Saturday nights are extended by an hour so visitors can have a relaxing dinner without having to rush to catch a taxi back to their original departure point. “A day in the Park can include something for every family members— historic sites and stories of our past, a beautiful day outside on the water, dining at any of almost 30 restaurant, and, of course, a little shopping along the way,” says Perry.
To entice people to visit the various restaurants and shops in the area, TRHP features a Ride and Save program. If a visitor shows their water taxi ticket at a participating merchant, there will be either a discount or a promotion or a gift with purchase. Hold on to your ticket for the full season because it’s good all summer, not just the day you use the water taxi. A full list of participating merchants is listed on the website.
An exciting plan for the future is a dock at the USS Nautilus Museum in Groton, slated to open in 2020. “This will grow our taxi service and visitation to other sites,” says Perry. “The museum gets about 140,000 people a year.”
The Thames River Heritage Park is the first heritage park in Connecticut, and the list of sites to visit is certainly more than a day’s outing. New London’s historic waterfront is listed with the National Register Historic Districts and encompasses 26 blocks.
Points of interest include the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse; the Custom House Maritime Museum—the oldest continuously operating U.S. custom house; Fort Trumbull built in 1852; the Garde Arts Center, a restored 1920s movie palace; and Shaw Mansion, Naval headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Other sites to visit include playwright Eugene O’Neill’s home, Monte Cristo Cottage; Lyman Allyn Art Museum; the U.S. Coast Guard Academy; and Connecticut College with a magnificent arboretum of more than 200 acres.
Across the Thames River in Groton lies a legacy of some of the region’s most legendary figures. Visit Fort Griswold, the site of a massacre led by traitor Benedict Arnold in 1781; the Groton Monument, the first obelisk completed in the U.S.; Ebenezer Avery House, a refuge for the wounded in the massacre; Submarine Force Museum & Library and the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine; the sail of the USS Flasher, which is displayed at the Subvets WWII National Memorial East, honoring the 3,617 submariners who lost their lives during WWII; and, historic Ledge Light in the Thames River.
Audio tours are available through the izi.Travel app, a link to which can be found at www.thamesriverheritagepark.org. The website also contains information on schedules, season passes and up-to-the-minute weather cancellations.