History Around the Corner: The Custom House in New London

The Custom House Maritime Museum in new London.
The Custom House Maritime Museum in new London.

Looking for something to do on a dreary mid-winter weekend? If so, get down to the New London Custom House and Maritime Museum at 150 Bank St. in New London.

For several years I worked in a New London office on Bank Street and walked past the Custom House many times. I always kept going, figuring I didn't have time to look inside. It wasn't until recently that I learned that this site is on the National Register of Historic Places and as the oldest continuously operating custom house in the U.S. maybe it deserved a visit.

The building is constructed of large, solid, gray, granite blocks and was designed in 1833 by the well-known architect, Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument. The design character of the building was intended to portray a sovereign nation of substance and might, not to be trifled with. The U.S. Custom Service was the main source of federal income prior to the adoption of the income tax. The Custom Service is now part of the Department of Homeland Security.

I recommend getting in line for a guided tour led by one of the many volunteer members of the New London Maritime Society, established in 1983. Members of the Society and others saved the Custom House from demolition. The City of New London purchased the building and allows the Maritime Society to operate it as a museum. The U.S. Customs leases one of the offices on the second floor. The Customs Service is tasked with monitoring goods arriving in the U.S. by sea from foreign countries and seizing contraband.

The stairs to the second floor of the building are guarded by a massive grandfather clock bequeathed by the Howard family. The second floor also houses a fine nautical reference library with its own remarkable model ship collection. And in the front room is a permanent exhibit that pertains to New London's role in the Amistad affair.

Throughout the museum the cold, granite stone floors are decorated with oriental rugs, also bequeathed by the Howard Family, that give the rooms welcoming warmth.

The Maritime Society, in addition to the care and maintenance of three operating light houses, operates the museum as an educational institution as well as collecting and preserving rare and gradually disappearing nautical documents and artifacts. To this end the Maritime Society shares items of interest with area museums such as Mystic Seaport Museum, the U.S. Coast Guard Museum and others.

Special tours of the Custom House for local schools or groups can be organized.

One of the exhibits is an unusual and unique display of nautical knot-tying, a skill that sailors call marlinespike that grew out of monotonous days on long sea voyages. The large display of knots was given to the museum by the Alton Beaudoin family of Mystic. Alton Beaudoin is said to have known from memory how to tie 400 knots.

On the main floor, visitors will find many other unusual and interesting artifacts, especially those pertaining to lighthouses. It's fair to say the museum collection is eclectic and reflects all things that pertain to the sea: staying alive and afloat and earning a living from it.

While touring the museum, it's hard to duplicate or describe the knowledge and enthusiasm of Maritime Society docents like Bill LaRoue, whose collection of sea stories brings life to the items on exhibit. Plan to spend at least an hour looking at exhibits and learning some background lore for each. He and others involved in the Maritime Society recognize the importance of preserving the nautical heritage of our community. If knowledge and artifacts are not preserved and studied, then we risk losing touch with our past and with each other.

The museum operating hours can be found at www.nlmaritimesociety.org, or by calling 860-447-2501. Parking within easy walking distance is plentiful, and a tour donation of $5 or more is welcome.

PHIL HOUK OF MONTVILLE IS A FORMER SUBMARINER, UCONN GRADUATE, AND RETIRED FIELD SERVICE TECH.
HE CAN BE REACHED AT PLHOUK@CT.METROCAST.NET.

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