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A touch of the Mystic

Nautical New England lives on in a waterfront museum of schooners and whaleboats. On a crisp, uncrowded fall day, take a trip into the past.

September 18, 2005|Jerry V. Haines | Special to The Times

Mystic, Conn. — THE clouds above the docks hurried along like freight trains on their way to big towns. A teenage girl selling flowers at the Saturday farmers market in Stonington jumped up and down, trying to generate some body heat against the relentless winds. Produce sellers blew on their hands and tried to interest the few browsers in the foodstuffs that characterize the end of the season: apples, fingerling potatoes, buttercup squash, bread-and-butter pickles.

My wife, Janice, and I sampled some arugula at one stand. It was a wonderful intersection of tender and crunchy, and it left a warm, peppery aftertaste, like cinnamon chewing gum.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Mystic Seaport -- An article in the Sunday's Travel section said the historic seaport in Mystic, Conn., is on the north bank of the Mystic River. The seaport is on the river's east bank.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 25, 2005 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Mystic Seaport -- An article in the Sept. 18 Travel section said the historic seaport in Mystic, Conn., is on the north bank of the Mystic River. The seaport is on the river's east bank.

As I scribbled in my notebook, trying to get the images down before they evaporated, the arugula seller regarded me suspiciously.

"Are you from the State?" she asked.

One of her friends chimed in, jokingly, "Are you trying to close her down?"

We weren't the police or the health department -- just non-New Englanders tasting the bittersweet mix of autumn in southeastern Connecticut.

It was no longer shorts-and-T-shirt weather, but the hills beyond nearby Mystic provided compensation: The leaves, acknowledging winter's advance, had exploded in arboreal pyrotechnics and begun to swirl away like confetti in whirlwinds.

In another sign of autumn: A few miles west, there was plenty of space in the parking lot at Mystic's historic seaport.

Nautical like no other

THERE are really two Mystics: The original town was founded in the 1600s and was a center for shipbuilding in the age of wooden sailing ships and iron men. Between 1784 and 1919, more than 600 ships were built here on the banks of the Mystic River. But steam replaced sail, and steel replaced wood. The town (now with a population of 4,000) still has a nautical atmosphere, but shipbuilding is largely over.

In 1929, rather than see that era forgotten, three Mystic residents sought to preserve the region's maritime culture and created the 19-acre Mystic Seaport on Lighthouse Point on the north bank of the Mystic River. Despite the Great Depression, the seaport's administration was able to acquire historic ships and shipbuilding equipment. They put them together with artifacts of seafaring, libraries, scholars and able presenters. The resulting entity combines elements of a museum and a theme park (but not in the thrill-ride sense) with functioning shipbuilding shops where craftsmen still use 19th century tools.

But the big attraction here is the ships -- the L.A. Dunton, Joseph Conrad and the Charles W. Morgan -- which are tied up in berths around the point. Mystic Seaport is an anachronism in an age of touch-screens and interactive videos. There is nothing virtual about this reality: the noisy boat building in the shops, the tall ships that visitors clamber aboard and the salt cod, its scent carried on the wind.

On the main deck of the L.A. Dunton, a 1921 fishing schooner, a burly guy cleaned and gutted a fresh cod. At one time, the hold below him would have been filled with wet, slippery, smelly salted fish, later to be dried by town residents.

He quickly transformed the cod into the kite shape familiar to anyone who has walked through Portuguese or Italian alleyways. He located the ear bones (who knew cod had ears?), which could be dried and made into jewelry.

The Dunton carried 10 dories -- 12-foot boats that would be swung into the water, carrying a two-man crew and 1,800 feet of line with baited hooks every 6 feet. On a good day, said interpreter Howard W. Davis, a crew might haul up 100 30-pound codfish on those lines.

The 82-year-old Davis has been interpreting for 47 years and is only one of many people who work in the various re-created workshops that crowd the edge of the dock or who demonstrate how the old ships operated.

Fishing was a dangerous business, Davis told us. There were so many ways to lose your life. The dories' crewmen could get lost in the fog and never make it back to the ship. Ice storms could immobilize, weigh down and sink a ship, which sometimes happened when a captain would chance sailing for home in a storm, rather than heading for milder weather, a delay that might cause his cargo to spoil.

Janice and I went below to the Dunton's crew quarters. A reproduced menu showed a typical week's fare. Not surprisingly, most of it was fish, usually the less marketable parts, like "broiled fish heads with pork scraps and onions."

Accommodations were spare, particularly because there was no officer corps. The captain was the only officer aboard. Crewmen slept in stacks of bunks that were essentially man-sized shelves in a large room.

In contrast to the Dunton, the Joseph Conrad had more fine woodwork and frosted glass than a typical county courthouse. The Conrad, built in Copenhagen in 1882 as a training vessel for the Danish navy, once was the private yacht of George Huntington Hartford, founder of the A&P grocery chain.

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