Heritage Park sites take a ride on the river to cross-promote
Front doors made from the USS Constitution, an original flag from the American Revolution, a home once occupied by slave owners and abolitionists and a medicine cabinet filled with drugs from the 1800s through the 1960s are some of the unique assets of local historical sites shared Friday amongst the people who know them best.
“This is a historic occasion,” said Penny Parsekian, chairwoman of the Thames River Heritage Park Foundation’s Communications Committee, addressing 15 representatives of 10 historic attractions as they prepared to embark on a one-hour water taxi ride between New London and Groton on the Thames River.
“We’re all on the same boat. We want to make sure we understand the significance of your site and that you understand the significance of each other’s sites," she said. "The idea is to make a destination out of small and mid-sized attractions so that when you put those together, you have something important.”
The one-hour ride among Fort Trumbull, New London City Pier and Fort Griswold was organized by the group developing the park — a “boundless area of heritage sites” first named a state park in 1990 but dormant until a new effort to bring it to reality began two years ago, Parsekian said.
On Saturday, another group of 18 representatives of five more historical and arts sites will share information about their attractions with one another aboard the vessel, which began operating on July 1.
Those scheduled to participate Saturday include the Garde Arts Center, the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, Hygienic Art, the Ebenezer Avery House and the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse.
At the first stop Friday at City Pier, Margaret Palmer, trustee of the New London Maritime Society-Custom House Maritime Museum, told how the site is the oldest operating custom house in the country, owns three lighthouses, and has oak doors made from an early restoration of the USS Constitution and an exhibit of the Amistad once displayed at the United Nations, among other historical items.
Steve Manuel, director of the Shaw Mansion-New London County Historical Society, shared how artifacts from the sailing ship Resolute are on display there, along with one of 14 flags from the Revolution and original copies of the Hempstead diaries used extensively by researchers.
Julie Cagle, docent and leader of education programs at the Hempsted Houses, offered tidbits from the story of the family that dwelt there, beginning as slaveholders in the late 1700s who became “staunch abolitionists” by the 1840s, while Gay Clarkson, board member of Expressiones on Bank Street, described the gallery’s mission to “bridge Hispanic and Anglo culture” with visiting artists, exhibits and programs for youth.
Georgie McGlinchey, office manager of the Mystic Whaler, added the offerings of the 83-foot schooner to the mix.
By learning about one another, Parsekian said, the sites can cross-promote one another to better advise tourists asking for advice about other sites worth a visit.
“We’re tired of hiding our light under a bushel,” she said. “We need to share.”
At the Fort Griswold stop in Groton, Reg Preston, director of the Submarine Force Museum and officer in charge of the Historic Ship Nautilus, whetted the appetite of the others on the boat with facts about how the Nautilus was the “first application of nuclear power for humanity,” and the World War II battle flags on display at the museum.
Ashlyn Rice, interpretive guide for Fort Griswold and Fort Trumbull, talked about Revolutionary War Col. William Ledyard’s sword at the Groton site and the 16-foot-thick granite walls at the New London fort.
“Our visitors’ center was the original Coast Guard Academy,” she said, noting that the heritage park plans to include the National Coast Guard Museum, planned for downtown New London.
At the Avery-Copp House in Groton, Director Leslie Evans explained, visitors can learn about the life of an ordinary middle-class family from the 1800s through 1930, including the medicine cabinet with “chocolate-covered cocaine pills” and other medications from the era of unregulated drugs.
Mary Reagan, executive assistant at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, which owns the Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, concluded the fact exchange with a brief description of the cottage's significance as the boyhood home of Eugene O’Neill, the only U.S. playwright to win a Nobel Prize.
“You are the people who working so hard to make these places come alive,” Parsekian said, adding that the information shared on the two boat rides will be available on a video on the park’s website, www.thamesriverheritagepark.org/.
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