December 29: A Timely Move in a Great Depression — Preserving America’s Golden Age of Sail


The village of Mystic, Connecticut — which is actually not its own town, but a borough straddling the two towns of Groton and Stonington — has been associated with sailing, fishing, and shipbuilding for hundreds of years. The village’s earliest shipbuilding enterprises date to the late 17th century, when English settlers set up shop along the banks of the Mystic River in southeastern Connecticut. Mystic became a bustling hub of shipbuilding, commercial fishing, and trade that thrived during America’s Golden Age of Sail, from the late 18th through the early 20th century. Transportation advances in the late 19th century, however — the rise of steamships, railroads, and gas-powered engines — rendered sail-powered wooden ships increasingly obsolete, and the village of Mystic experienced a slow but steady decline in its fortunes.

The three founders of the Marine Historical Association: Carl C. Cutler, Edward E. Bradley, and Dr. Charles K. Stillman. (Mystic Seaport Museum)

Sensing that the Age of Sail was coming to an end, three forward-thinking men in Mystic came together in the early days of the Great Depression to try and preserve the history and memories of Mystic and the maritime way of life it embodied. On December 29, 1929, these three men — a local lawyer, a physician, and an industrialist — created the Marine Historical Association with the goal of commemorating America’s maritime history and culture by collecting and preserving whatever objects and records they could obtain. Their timing was fortuitous; as family businesses closed up shop and old wooden sailing ships were rotated out of service during the Depression years, the Marine Historical Association received donations of records, ship logs, family heirlooms, and even entire vessels, amassing a formidable collection.

After acquiring the Charles W. Morgan in 1941, which now stands as the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world, the Marine Historical Association rebranded itself as Mystic Seaport, and focused its efforts on building a recreated 19th century seaport along the banks of the Mystic River to serve as a museum and educational campus. Mystic Seaport was one of the first living history museums in the country, aiming to provide an immersive and educational experience by recreating the sights and sounds of a historical place, complete with costumed interpreters. Today, the Mystic Seaport Museum is one of the world’s foremost maritime museums, with a 19-acre campus housing a collection of over two million maritime artifacts, 1.3 million historic photographs, and over 500 boats, attracting more than a quarter million visitors every year. Big dreams of preserving America’s maritime history were first launched in a dark time,  today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

History of Mystic Seaport Museum,” Mystic Seaport Museum website