BOSTON — New Englanders are proud of their nautical heritage, and Boston, once the maritime hub of the nation and even now one of the busiest seaports in the world, boasts a fine variety of nautical exhibits within, or just outside its city limits.
Take, for example, the Francis Russell Hart Nautical Museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Part of MIT's Department of Ocean Engineering, the museum contains a collection of exquisitely crafted scale-model ships, descriptively labeled so you can wander about on your own.
Models range from simple--a tiny, plain Norwegian pram--to complex--a four-foot reproduction of the U.S. frigate President, fully rigged, complete with coiled lines, lifeboats and brass fittings.
For exotica, a Korean warship, the Turtle, has a spiked cover to shelter its gunners and crew. The 16th-Century real ship spouted sulfuric fumes from the turtle's mouth to frighten its superstitious foe and to provide a smoke-screen.
A humbler but no less faithfully rendered model is a gondola, a flat-bottom scow commonly seen on rivers and marshes during the late 19th Century.
The oldest vessel represented is a Viking ship, part of a history of merchant and warships that includes modern specimens. You'll see the familiar--the Half Moon, the Mayflower and others--as well as some that are less familiar but no less interesting.
Also on display are half models of yachts, engines and other examples of marine technology and memorabilia. In the lobby of Building 5 at 55 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, the Hart Nautical Museum is open free from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Not too far away, at the Museum of Science, are some quite different nautical displays, although you'll find ship models there, too, ranging from ancient Egyptian sailing craft to modern power vessels. These are on the museum's third floor.
On the first floor is a full-size replica of a ship's bridge where you can grasp the big wheel and fantasize about steering your vessel through dangerous waters. Nearby is a six-foot square diorama of East Boston's McKay Shipyard where the famed Flying Cloud clipper ship was built.
Through the window you'll glimpse three typical harbor buoys, once having done service at sea, now floating in the Charles River basin. A plaque describes their original uses.
The Museum of Science is on the Charles River Dam on the McGrath and O'Brien Highway, between Leverett Circle in Boston and Lechmere Circle in Cambridge. If you arrive by car, park in the adjacent garage. By subway, take the Green Line. Open 9 to 9 most days (some evenings are sold out). Admission: $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and children 5-16, children under 5 free.
The Old State House in downtown Boston, a Federal-style brick structure built in 1713, may not sound like a likely place for a nautical exhibit, but indeed you will find one there. The display is not extensive, but the second floor houses some of the finest maritime paintings in town.
Some of these wonderful old oil paintings chronicle the China and California trades of the 1850s when tea and silk were imported in exchange for hides; some depict the famous sea battle between the Constitution and the Guerriere; and there are two views of Boston Harbor, circa 1853, one from land looking out to sea, the other from the sea looking landward.
In the middle of the room are eight fine models of several types of ships, including clipper ships, sloops of war and an old steam side-wheeler.
An adjacent room holds a display of scrimshaw, the art of lonely sailors at sea--decorated whales' teeth, elaborately carved whalebone corset stays, and a porpoise jaw on which is carved a ship in full sail. There is also a display of nautical instruments such as chronometers, quadrants, Fathometers.
You'll find the Old State House at 206 Washington St. in Boston (on the Freedom Trail). Open 9:30 to 5 summers, 10 to 4 winters. Admission: $1.25 for adults, 75 cents for seniors, 50 cents for children under 16.
If it's warships you like, you can see the oldest living ancestor of them all. Just north of downtown Boston, floating serenely at the Charlestown Navy Yard, is the Constitution, "Old Ironsides" herself, the oldest fully commissioned warship in the world.
Built in 1797, the Constitution is still under command of the Navy, and Navy personnel, dressed in uniform of the old girl's 1812 glory days, serve as tour guides on board or are content to answer questions, if you like to ramble from deck to deck on your own.
Everything in Working Order
Through narrow passageways, up and down steep gangways, below decks and above, you'll find everything in working order. It has to be, because the Constitution makes an annual July 4th "turnaround" trip and also acts as occasional nautical greeter, as when the Tall Ships came to town during the Bicentennial celebration.