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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

USS Nautilus: Submarine tour and Museum - Groton, Connecticut

I don't know about you, but I love playing tourist in my home front.  I am always amazed (and embarrassed) when people come to visit with their list of "must-see-sights" and how many of them I really haven't even been to.  Mark Twain House What?  Monument Where? 

 I have lived in New England my whole life (minus my two-year stint in Utah), and lived in Connecticut for about 15 years.  For years I have made the drive down I-95, crossing the Thames River to see the small black sign welcoming you to the city of Groton, announcing that you are officially in the "Submarine Capital of the World".  Like any local, I never paid much attention to the sign, acknowledging that we have General Dynamics/Electric Boat, and that subs are the name of the game in this neck of the woods.  

Exhibits outside of the museum

When Amanda mentioned something about a free submarine tour and museum located pretty close to my home in Stonington (Amanda loves history and grew up with a father in the navy) I sort of did one of those "Oh yeah, I think there is some kind of submarine and museum thingy at the sub base in Groton", oh so nonchalantly.  As I sort of shrugged it off, I felt guilty for not taking advantage of such a unique museum and chance to walk through a submarine a mere 20 minutes down the road.  So after work, I jumped in the car, raced to grab Amanda, and we headed to the Thames to walk through the Submarine Force Museum, tour the USS Nautilus, and learn more about the Submarine Capital of the World. Turns out, I had really underplayed this.   Spoiler:  all free, amazing museum, and you can walk around and through the world's first operational nuclear powered submarine- this place is a Must See.

Exhibits outside of the museum

Entrance and parking to the museum is free which makes this experience even better.  You will have to drive through a gate to enter the museum that does close at a certain hour (read: your car will get locked in the gate if you chose to leave it there past 5).  Once you pull in and park, right from the start, the museum features a number of historic submarines and various submarine parts/equipment on display right in the parking lot. Our favorite was the two large rings at the entrance (photo 2) comparing the diameter of two submarines the smaller older sub and a more modern version.  After spending some time outside of the museum, we headed inside to see the exhibits and learn more about subs. 

Submarine Force Library and Museum 

Address:  1 Crystal Lake Rd, Groton, CT
Directions:  From I-95, take Exit 86 and follow the USS Nautilus signs to the museum.
Hours:  Closed Tuesdays.  Summer Wed - Mon. 9-5. Off-season closes at 4. (Call to verify)
Phone: 860-694-3174
Admission: Free 
Parking:  Large lot - also free
Gift Shop:   There is also a gift shop where you can get various Connecticut and submarine related gifts and souvenirs. 

It is really impressive that this large and very well put together museum is absolutely free to the public.  Of course they have a donation box where the accept donations, and a gift store with various souvenirs and trinkets but admissions into the museum is free.  You could spend hours walking through the various exhibits about the Nautilus, World War II, and the evolution of submarines and nuclear power.  Average time in the museum is 2 hours but you could easily spend half a day to soak up everything in this museum.  

Exhibit in the museum

The main hall/exhibit area has a bunch of awesome exhibits.  For some local history, you can see a full size replica of Bushnell's Turtle. "David Bushnell of Old Saybrook, Connecticut designed and built the Turtle to attack British warships during the Revolutionary War. The attacks Turtle made in 1776 were unsuccessful, but did demonstrate the submarine's potential. The Turtle was the first practical submarine and the first submarine to attack an enemy ship".

USS Gato Exhibit

I loved the suspended replica of the USS Gato where you could peer into various rooms on the replica of this sub.  The model is suspended in the main exhibit area is a 50 foot long (1/6th scale) showing the interior and exterior of this submarine in exacting detail. The Gato was the primary class of submarine used by the United States during World War II.  For a good laugh, all of the men in the submarine are wearing their skivvies.  

USS Gato Exhibit

I think our favorite part of the museum was the "attack center".  You can walk through this exhibit and peer through the three operational periscopes through which you can see Nautilus, the Thames River and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.  If you have kids in your group, definitely take them here.

Attack Center in the Museum

USS Nautilus Diagram 

The main attraction is outside of the museum, as you board the USS Nautilus for a handheld audio tour of the sub (at your own pace). Exit the museum, cross the train tracks and there in the Thames you will see the conning tower "571" where you can board and tour the world's first operational nuclear-powered submarine.  

Boarding the USS Nautilus

On top of the Nautilus 

  • In July of 1951, Congress authorized construction of the world's first nuclear powered submarine, the Nautilus.  Read all about Nuclear Marine Propulsion here.
  • Electric Boat Company, one of the nation’s leading constructors of submarines, built the submarine in Groton, 3 miles south of where she is presently moored.  It took nearly 18 months of construction to complete the Nautilus.
  • The Nautilus was commissioned in September of 1954 
  • The U.S.S. Nautilus was not only the first nuclear submarine, but was the first submarine to reach the North Pole (dubbed operation Sunshine). 
  • In response to the nuclear ICBM threat posed by Sputnik, President Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Navy to attempt a submarine transit of the North Pole to gain credibility for the soon-to-come SLBM weapons system.
  • It sailed from Alaska under the Polar ice cap, passed under the North Pole, and surfaced near Greenland in August 1958.
  • The Nautilus was in service for 26 years; from 1954 to 1980.
  • The submarine carried 11 officers and 105 enlisted men and could dive to 700 feet.  It could also travel speeds in excess of 20 knots.
  • The Nautilus is 319 feet long– a little longer than a football field and weighs 3,400 tons on the surface.
  • The Nautilus was the first true submarine and could stay underwater for very long periods of time. Whereas World War II submarines would remain submerged for 12-48 hours. Nautilus could remain underwater for two weeks or more.
  • It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1982 and Connecticut’s State Ship in 1985.

Entrance to the Nautilus after receiving our audio wands

 As you board the Nautilus, you can receive your audio-tour wands from an active duty Navy service member.  Inside, you can walk through various compartments of the sub and see the mannequins that have been positioned performing various submarine tasks (loading the torpedoes, sleeping in their bunks, in the kitchen, etc).  ** Be aware, that many of the openings of the Nautilus are small and you will have to do some maneuvering to walk around the ship.**  If you don't like enclosed spaces, you may be a little claustrophobic in the space.  However, as someone who hates small spaces, I did not have a problem touring the submarine.   As you walk around, you can select various numbers on your audio wand to hear about various sections of the submarine.  You can go as slow or as fast as you would like (average tour time is about 30 minutes).   Some of the areas that really stood out to me was the sleeping situation for all of these men, talk about close quarters.   Imagine spending long periods of time on this ship with that many people?  

You can also see the submarine virtually HERE.  

Small spaces/entrances through the sub

Mess Hall

Mess Hall

Where do you get the chance to board and tour a historic marine submarine?  Well, here in Groton, Connecticut, you can.  And all for free.  The museum is fantastic, with various displays on earlier submarines, World War II history, and everything else you can imagine in a submarine museum - it is a Must See for the area.  Educational and a big piece of history sitting right here in the Thames River.  If you find yourself in the Submarine Capital of the world, I highly recommend you take an evening to visit the Nautilus and Museum. 

Thames River, Groton, CT

Want to know more about what's in the area?

Visit Bluff Point State Park
Head to Avery Point to see the lighthouses/walk the grounds
Grab a lobster roll at Ford's or Abbotts 

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