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Coastal History Cruise: The Thames River Water Taxi

by Michael Lee-Murphy
Connecticut Magazine

This piece was originally published on June 15, 2017 by Michael Lee-Murphy for Connecticut Magazine and is used with permission.


Down in the southeastern corner of the state, the well-manicured (and well-heeled) streets of Mystic are often the go-to spot for tourist feet and dollars. Mystic’s seaport and aquarium, too, have long attracted a lot of attention in this corner of the state. Those looking for something perhaps a bit livelier and rambunctious might drift up toward the casinos to catch a show and play a few games of chance.

A few I-95 exits away on the west bank of the Thames in New London, this casino-Mystic tourism axis is something of a sore spot. You want bars? The Whale City has lots. A waterfront? New London has a living, breathing, working waterfront, with industries that still shape and color life here. But too often, those looking for a bit of coastal southern New England with character and soul skip over New London.

Stepping in as a new draw to pull people into the city is the Thames River Heritage Park Water Taxi, now in its second full season on the water. The water taxi’s goal is to link the many sites of the Thames River Heritage Park, a new umbrella grouping of some 20 historic sites in New London and Groton. “This park was really decades in the making,” says Amy Perry, the Heritage Park’s executive director. “Since the 1960s, historians and city municipal leaders and planners have always sort of dreamt of having some kind of park to showcase our rich heritage.”

The two boats of the taxi operate on a one-hour loop, incorporating three stops: the New London waterfront (in front of the train station), the Thames River Landing on the Groton side (which abuts Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park) and Fort Trumbull State Park. The water taxi is also designed in anticipation of the construction of the National Coast Guard Museum on the New London waterfront, and aims to incorporate the Submarine Force Museum just up the river — the home of the Connecticut-built, nuclear-powered USS Nautilus, the first vessel to cross under the North Pole.

The tagline of the Heritage Park is “One River, A Thousand Stories,” Perry says, meant to center the river in the story of the region. The water taxi and the larger heritage park it serves takes the river as a feature that unites rather than separates the area. “You start putting it all together and figuring out how it all worked, because of the river,” says Perry. Her hope is that the water taxi will allow tourists and locals alike to tap into an unbroken chain of history on the river, stretching back to the Revolutionary War. The story, Perry says, is “that evolution of where whaling ships were built or where cargo ships were moored. Now we build submarines.”

Indeed, the two water taxis — small former surplus Navy boats with a capacity of roughly 35 — give passengers a great up-close view of the Electric Boat shipyard. Perry says that you might, just might, see a submarine in the water. “The other thing that makes this park so unique is that it’s situated in a working, living waterfront. Ferries are coming and going all day long. Coast Guard boats are going by,” Perry says. The trips across the Thames are short, under 10 minutes. (As such, there aren’t any amenities, such as bathrooms or food and drink. Passengers can bring their own refreshments, including alcohol.)

On a cloudy, windy day in late May, on the first day of the water taxi’s season (which runs through Sept. 18), the first two passengers are mother and daughter Maital Friedman and Navit Baldachin, who have come from Scarsdale in New York. Four-year-old Navit has decided that the front is her favorite part of the boat. She peers out over the bow of the ship as it goes from spot to spot. Other than the front of the boat, the best part of the trip for Navit was a hot chocolate and a cupcake in Muddy Waters cafe on Bank Street in New London. Perry says the water taxi will incorporate historical tours, as well as morning and sunset cruises. Check the website for details.

Tickets on the water taxi are $10 for an adult round-trip ticket and $15 for an unlimited full-day ticket ($5 and $10 for children/active military). Children under 3 are free. A $50 season pass allows you to ride all summer. The water taxi runs on a hop-on, hop-off hourly loop between the three stops: at Fort Trumbull on the hour, at New London City Pier at 20 minutes after the hour, and at Thames River Landing on Fort Street in Groton, departing at 40 minutes after the hour. The first departure is at 10 a.m. and the last is at 9 p.m.