Out of the water, the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan looks as big as the leviathans its crews hunted.
But its size belies the cramped quarters on board. As visitors clamber through cabins and work areas, they are struck by the almost claustrophobic atmosphere — and that’s without a crew on board.
The Morgan was the last sail-powered whaling ship. It is being painstakingly restored at Mystic Seaport, a museum complex devoted to the 19th-century maritime industry.
Visitors to the Connecticut attraction can watch artisans and engineers as they work on the ship, which plied the oceans from 1841 to 1921. They can see up close how the ship is built and how it is outfitted. It’s both history and engineering on display.
But the Morgan is only one small part of the museum.
Like Indiana’s Conner Prairie, Mystic Seaport has gathered authentic buildings from around the region and reconstructed them, forming a complex that shows the varied crafts and trades that were needed in a maritime village of the time.
IF YOU GO
What: Mystic Seaport, the Museum of America and the Sea
Where: Mystic, Conn.
Admission: $24 for adults, $22 for seniors and college students, $15 for children 5 to 17
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in spring and summer, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in fall, closed in January and early February
And they aren’t static displays. For instance, the rope walk — a long, two-story clapboard building — not only shows how lines of twine are twisted into ropes but allows craftsmen actually to fabricate the ropes needed for the Charles Morgan and other restored sailing ships.
In the cooperage, a craftsman makes barrels and buckets. On the day of our visit, he was making rope buckets for the Morgan’s whaleboats. They look like normal wood buckets but have holes in the bottom. When a harpooned whale pulls rope at high speed from the whaleboat, the line gets hot because of friction. Crew members cool the rope by pouring water on it, but without the holes the bucket would fill with water.
In the shipcarver’s shop, an artist carves nameplates and other ornamental pieces for the museum’s ships.
In the seaman’s chapel, an interpreter with a guitar entertains visitors with a series of chanteys and offers commentary about the whaling songs.
Some of the buildings are more for education than craft, such as a clock shop, which displays ocean navigation instruments, a druggist’s store and a residence typical for a middle-class family of the time.
Other buildings offer information on lobster fishing, oyster harvesting, lifeguarding, sail making, small boats, printing and wood carving.
Among the ships moored at the Mystic piers is the Amistad, a replica of the ship on which slaves staged a revolt. The ship still puts to sea for educational cruises.
During a summer camp program, youngsters can sleep aboard the Joseph Conrad and climb in its rigging.
A planetarium offers programs on navigation.
At one end of Mystic Seaport’s grounds is a more traditional museum. The first floor offers an overview of sea travel in America. It includes touching displays on seaborne immigration. The second floor is devoted to whaling and fishing, and the third houses changing exhibits.
Food is available at a quick-service restaurant, a bakery, a pub and a more formal restaurant.
A warning to parents: Because Mystic Seaport is a working port and restoration facility, there aren’t the kinds of safety barriers visitors will find at other theme parks. That means parents need to keep a close eye on young children so they don’t fall off the wharf and into the harbor or run into the path of a service vehicle delivering parts to restoration workers.
Children can work off some of their energy with hands-on activities in the Discovery Barn, a nautical-themed playground and a children’s area.
While very young children are unlikely to get much out of the exhibits, older children likely will relish the chance to climb around on old sailing ships.
A visit to Mystic Seaport is at least a half-day outing but easily could stretch to a full day or even more if a visitor spends extended time in the craft areas.
Nearby is the Mystic Aquarium, which is a separate attraction not related to the museum.
The town of Mystic has a large number of 19th-century homes. Several modern buildings are built to resemble their older neighbors, making a drive along tree-shaded streets a pleasure in itself.