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Amistad's voyage to Norwich to be a squeeze play

Norwich - When the Amistad makes its way up the Thames River to Norwich Harbor in June to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation's 150th anniversary, the replica 19th-century ship will have a different look.

While the schooner's tallest mast stands at 100 feet, the Mohegan-Pequot Bridge across the Thames River is only 75 feet above the water. So as crews complete winter repairs at Mystic Seaport and rig the ship for a busy summer of planned events, they will remove the tallest mast and sail up the river with two shorter 68-foot tall masts.

"We'll need low tide to get under the bridge coming up river," Amistad America President Greg Belanger said Saturday.

Belanger met with Norwich city Historian Dale Plummer, co-chairman of the Norwich Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee, and Mayor Peter Nystrom at the city dock at the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park to discuss logistics for the vessel's first visit to Norwich.

Belanger said with the bridge problem resolved, his only concern is the depth of the channel, but he was assured that the river is deep enough for the Amistad's 10-foot, 6-inch hull depth.

The trip to Norwich will be the first public appearance by the Amistad since it was damaged on a return from Cuba two years ago and is a perfect fit for the Amistad's mission, Belanger said.

The original Amistad was carrying kidnapped Africans to a Cuban plantation in 1839, when the Africans rebelled and seized control of the ship. The incident drew international attention when the ship was brought into New London Harbor, and the Africans eventually won their freedom from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Belanger waived the ship's normal "appearance fee" for the Norwich visit, and public tours of the vessel will be free during its stay.

Norwich is planning several events in the coming months to celebrate the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's declaration that freed slaves in the rebellious Southern states.

Freedom Weekend will combine the Amistad's visit with the casting of the first commissioned Emancipation Proclamation Bell in the nation and the Norwich NAACP's annual Juneteenth festival that celebrates emancipation from slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee has contracted with the Verdin Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, a bell manufacturing company founded in 1842, to bring the company's mobile bell casting trailer to Brown Park June 14-16 to cast a 155-pound bronze Freedom Bell. About 500 students will participate in the casting on Friday, June 15, and the bell will be rung for the first time on Saturday.

On Jan. 1, 2013, Norwich will ring all church, firehouse and other bells - including the new Freedom Bell - for an hour to mark the exact 150th anniversary of the date the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

Belanger said the Amistad has its own bell ringing tradition. When the Amistad arrives in a port, the crew rings the ship bell 53 times for the number of African captives aboard in 1839.

"That would be great at the opening, as the bell is being casted," Nystrom suggested.

c.bessette@theday.com

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