Thames River Heritage Park, taxis, become a summer mainstay
When former Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith stepped down as president of the Thames River Heritage Park Foundation board of directors at the end of 2020, she told The Day she was most proud of the park’s collaboration among a large variety of entities.
The park was created on the concept that the many small historical museums and cultural attractions in Groton and New London, which include Fort Trumbull and Fort Griswold state parks, the Hempsted Houses, the Avery-Copp house and Monte Cristo Cottage, would more easily thrive through collaboration. The Thames River, because of its central role in the historical, cultural and economic development of the region, tied the sites together. The park’s water taxis − repurposed surplus Navy utility boats − linked the variety of sites with hop-on, hop-off service in downtown New London, Fort Trumbull State Park and Groton bank.
Now, as the park completes its fifth full summer season, it can boast of even more collaborations that this year more firmly entrenched it as a vital attraction for the region. A new partnership with the Mohegan tribe resulted in numerous popular tours in which tribal members in native dress sang, displayed native objects and told stories highlighting their heritage. Members of both the Mohegan and Mashantucket-Pequot tribes were among the earliest inhabitants of the Thames River area.
In addition, this summer the park for the first time − thanks to a grant from Veolia Water − partnered with the New London Recreation Department to bring some 100 city children on the water taxis. As the children toured the harbor by boat, they also learned about the region’s history and heritage.
Under the direction of Amy Perry, executive director of the Thames River Heritage Park Foundation, the park has adapted and expanded its offerings through the years. Narrated themed boat tours that began in 2019 regularly sold out as locals and visitors alike came to enjoy a harbor cruise while hearing about the region’s important military history from pre-Revolutionary War days through the advent of nuclear submarines. Recognizing the tours’ popularity, the park and its member sites created several other themed tours ranging from women’s history and whaling history to native history and the importance of sailors of color to the region’s maritime heritage.
After the extremely challenging pandemic year in 2020 in which all water taxi riders wore masks and boat and tour capacity was severely limited, the park rebounded in 2021 with more than 60 tours and new offerings. Among these were the fun Friday happy hour harbor tours featuring local notables such as Garde Arts Center Executive Director Steve Sigel and The Day’s music and theater writer Rick Koster.
The park also attracted water taxi riders by offering discounts for those who showed proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Perry said that promotion helped boost ridership to near 2019 levels despite the absence of Sailfest, poor weather that forced tour cancellations on several weekends and during New London’s Eat in the Street events, and continued pandemic worries that increased with the spread of the delta variant.
The park now is well poised for a successful future with expanded offerings. It’s fourth water taxi stop at the USS Nautilus and Submarine Force Museum is expected to be complete by May 2022. This will open opportunities to attract more water taxi passengers and for the boats eventually to venture north of the submarine base. Another surplus Navy utility boat also is secured and will be retrofitted for use as a taxi and tour-boat named “Nameaug.”
Collaboration seldom comes easily in fiercely independent Connecticut, where museums, tourist attractions and cultural sites too often choose to struggle in isolation from one another. But the success of the Thames River Heritage Park with its emphasis on collaboration and its careful and deliberative growth, demonstrates there are benefits from mutual cooperation and sharing marketing and other resources.
The park, the creation of which was strongly backed on these editorial pages, has established itself as a summer tourism mainstay for the region. We wish it much success in summers to come as it continues to grow and adapt.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.