History Revisited: Remembering two Thames River attractions

Historical, commercial and cultural sites along the banks of the Thames River have drawn the attention of thousands of visitors over the years, from not only the local area, but from throughout the country.

In recent years, the Thames River Heritage Park Foundation instituted a water taxi service to help visitors access the many historic and cultural destinations on both the New London and Groton sides of the river. The seasonal taxi, which transports passengers among several landing sites in New London and Groton, would, on most occasions, take short excursions up and down the Thames River to provide a riverside view of the area.

Many of those riding the water taxi expressed their surprise that such a river tour vehicle had not previously been available for visitors to the area. Unknown to many was the fact that there had indeed been such a service provided over 50 years ago. Thus, the story begins.

During the summer months in the early 1960s, Clarence Sharp, who was then Mayor of the City of Groton and president of the Whaling City Dredge and Dock Corporation on Fairview Avenue, on a daily basis watched tourists gathering under the Thames River Bridge to photograph submarines traveling to and from the submarine base. He learned from many of these tourists that they were trying to locate boats to take them on trips to view sites along both sides of the Thames River.

Sharp, who was a shrewd businessman, saw an opportunity he could not resist. In June 1963, he inaugurated “See Submarines By Boat,” a sightseeing tour business from spaces in his Dredge and Dock Corp. building. A new, 38-foot, fiberglass, open cabin excursion vessel was acquired for the tours. The boat was capable of carrying 48 passengers and two crewmembers.

The seven-mile, one-hour boat tour afforded visitors the opportunity to view the Submarine Base, the Coast Guard Academy, the Connecticut State Pier, the U.S. Submarine Tender Fulton, the Underwater Sound Laboratory, Fort Trumbull, the Pfizer Research and Production plant, the Electric Boat Corporation and Fort Griswold. A pre-recorded tape provided passengers with a narrative of the sites.

The business operated daily, from May through September, with boats departing every 20 minutes beginning at 9 a.m. and running until one hour before sunset.

Within three years, because the business had grown so much, two boats were added to the operation. The number of tourists taking the summer boat tour would average about 35,000 each year.

Sharp always hired high school students to work during their summer break. Young men were employed as deck hands and would keep the facilities in tip-top shape. The women would act as “hostesses” of sorts, selling tickets, helping visitors board boats and selling souvenirs.

The young employees were also required, on occasions when the prerecorded tape malfunctioned, to accompany the tours and provide the narrative.

In June 1969, Sharp, whose primary business interest was his dredge and dock company, purchased, at auction, the Jamestown Ferry, which had been used as a transport vehicle across the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island before a new highway bridge was constructed. Sharp paid a little over $20,000 for the craft and intended to use it as a piece of construction equipment on a government project at the submarine base.

As the story goes, Sharp’s company had won a bid to remove and replace wooden piers at the base and a requirement of the contract was to properly dispose of the wood, which was coated with creosote wood preservatives. Sharp’s intention was to bring the ferry to Groton and remove everything from the boat, including the upper decks and engine room. He would then fill the now empty hull with sand, thus making it a barge of sorts.

After removing the old pilings and wood from the piers at the base, he would place them onto the converted boat, tow them out to international waters and set them on fire to dispose of them. Before he started converting the ferry into a sand-barge, the government cancelled the pier contract.

Again, Sharp’s business ingenuity took hold and he came up with an alternative plan for the ferry which incorporated four different ventures: a restaurant, a homeport for the tour boats, a souvenir store and a picture gallery about submarine history.

The restaurant, which opened in 1970, was at first cafeteria style, catering to the people who went on the river tours. Within a few years the restaurant was converted into a sit-down French cuisine facility which attracted tourists and local residents. A lounge and piano bar were also added.

Clarence Sharp died in 1974, and the businesses associated with the ferryboat closed in 1975.

The ferry was subsequently sold and was initially used as a restaurant on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Their restaurant business did not seem to take hold and it subsequently became an entertainment center.

On a tragic note, the three submarine tour boats were sold to a similar business in Lake George, N.Y. Unfortunately, in October 2005, one of the boats, while touring Lake George, capsized and sank, tragically resulting in the death of 20 passengers.

The new Thames River Heritage Park Water Taxi will certainly bring attention and, more important, access to the many historical, commercial and recreational attractions on both sides of the Thames River. It is a much-needed boost to our communities.

Jim Streeter is the Groton town historian.

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