Home to the New London Naval Base in Groton, this area of the state houses much military and maritime history in a variety of spots in and around New London County. Topping the list of must-see places to see here is the Historic Ship Nautilus and Submarine Force Museum in Groton. And for more kid friendly museum options check out our Museum Guide.
Located on the Thames River in Groton, the Museum is the only submarine museum operated by the US Navy. Originally founded by the General Dynamics Corporation as "The Submarine Library" , the submarine builder eventually realized the huge value of such a collection of documents, artifacts and information. In 1964, General Dynamics donated the collection to the US Navy. In 1986, after a lengthy conversion process, the USS Nautilus opened to visitors, giving a first hand view of life under the sea.
The entrance to the USS Nautilus and Submarine Force Museum sits just yards from the main gate of the New London Naval Submarine base in Groton, a reminder of the strong, proud military, specifically Naval, ties in this area. On the way to the museum, in the parking lot, you can't help but gravitate towards the giant "sail", or tall tower structure of a submarine that houses the periscopes, etc., of the USS George Washington, a lead ship in the nuclear ballistic submarines. Next to the sail are the two, original propellers from the USS Nautilus, the namesake of the museum, and the world's first operational nuclear-powered submarine. Although signs strictly prohibit climbing on the structures, they make for excellent photo backdrops with kids!
As you enter the museum, admission to which is free, you're greeted at an information desk and invited to sign the visitor's log. Interestingly, the volunteers who staff this desk all served some submarine service, some even on the Nautilus itself! The staff is super friendly and will happily answer questions from curious kiddos, or more curious adults!
We were encouraged by staff to head out to see the USS Nautilus before viewing the museum, as touring the sub offers visitors a better understanding of the items in the museum after you've seen a submarine up close and personal. A word of warning about touring the Nautilus: if you're concerned about tight spaces or require handicapped accessibility, touring the Nautilus is not appropriate for you. Let your party know that life on a sub revolves around tight quarters, steep stairs and narrow hallways, all of which you experience first hand on the Nautilus! On our visit, we saw several young children who had no problem navigating their way through the Nautilus.
Walking through the Nautilus is a throwback to another time. A 30 minute, self-guided tour through different sections of the ship takes you from the torpedo room, to navigation and mess area, among others. You walk down the very first staircase ever installed in a submarine. (Hint: It's STEEP!) You're surrounded by equipment, artifacts and documents that tell the story of the historic ship.
When you emerge from the Nautilus, you head back into the museum's Main Hall, which serves as a timeline of submarine history. From the world's first combat submarine to modern classes of subs, information and examples of their weaponry, technology and more is on display. The highlight for us was the attack centers, one of which contained three, real, operational periscopes! Take a glimpse into these and see what you can see!
A visit to the Nautilus and Submarine Force museum takes about 90 minutes, which makes it a well timed outing for kids of all ages. Although, keep in mind, there is no stroller accessibility in the Nautilus, just in the museum itself. During the busier visitors season, from Memorial to Labor day, a little outdoor cafe serves up snacks and food. But, with free admission, it might be worth spending a few bucks on a meal in one of the nearby diners or restaurants. Don't forget to stroll through the gift shop on the way out for a memento of your visit to one of the most unique museums of its kind!
Originally published 5/10/13.