Thames River Heritage Park is a hit with visitors

The water taxis that have been making their way between New London and Groton since Memorial Day have had record-level ridership and have become a great summer success story, a story that should be told.

The taxis, one named Groton, the other New London, are operated by the Thames River Heritage Park. They offer hop-on, hop-off service and, new this year, a number of themed tours that relate to our region’s rich heritage, which have sold out since we launched them.

Putting a spotlight on the past is making us a serious player in our state's strong tourism industry. The cities of New London and Groton, perched opposite each other on the banks of the Thames River, were founded and developed as a result of the powerful relationship with the water. Our industries emerged because of this river and continue to define these cities and tell our stories. Stories of shipbuilding, whaling and provisioning, of privateering, war and heroism, and of industry and defense.

What was a dream has now has emerged as an economic driver, a tourism destination, an opportunity to showcase our rich history and a catalyst for growth for our local businesses, while being a fun, educational, and affordable family activity.

We’re a non-profit group governed by a board of directors and headed by Marian Galbraith, a former mayor of the city of Groton. We provide an interesting experience and we give people a fun chance to get out on the water.

In the first eleven weeks of operation, our taxis, former Navy liberty launches, have had 7,024 riders—a 45 percent increase over the same time period last year. We expect that trend to continue right through to the last day of the season, Sept. 15.

The idea of a park to highlight our region’s important cultural and historic assets is not a new one. The Southeastern Connecticut Regional Planning Agency first broached the possibility in the 1960s. The planners said such a park would focus attention on the assets that make our area unique, and that it would play a role in the tourism field.

In 1987 the legislature authorized creation of a statewide heritage park system, specifically identifying the Thames Estuary as the most promising place to launch the effort.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the idea began to take shape. All of us who value the idea of promoting our heritage owe a huge thank you to the Avery Copp House museum. This small non-profit in the city of Groton brought in the Yale Urban Design Workshop. The group produced a report in 2015, and we were off and running.

In this, our fourth year of operation, we’ve added a number of other amenities that are proving popular: tours on the water as well as walking tours in both Groton and New London; and free shuttle bus service from the Groton stop to the Navy’s Submarine Force Museum and Historic Ship Nautilus with stops at historic sites along the way.

The park is introducing our rich heritage to groups from across the state, such as senior centers and parks and recreation departments, which are coming in busloads to enjoy our themed land and water tours, including stops at many of the park sites, lunch in New London and a boat tour.

We have had a great deal of support from local residents and we’ve seen visitors from more than a dozen states, the farthest being Hawaii. No small number have asked our staff for recommendations on nearby restaurants.

We have engaged with about two dozen New London businesses — many of them restaurants — to provide special offers or discounts to those who come in with a water taxi ticket. Admission to the museum at Fort Trumbull State Park is free to those with a same-day boat ticket.

From the beginning, we have been working with the Navy, which is on track to add a dock at the Historic Ship Nautilus next year for our boats, adding yet another reason to ride the water taxi. We expect to continue improving what we do in the coming years.

Amy Perry is the executive director of the Thames River Heritage Park Foundation. 

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