Maritime Museums That Can Be Reached By Boat

By Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Discover our nation's great nautical history at these 15 museums that you can reach by boat.

Shipwright Matt Barnes installs the billet head on Charles W. MorganShipwright Matt Barnes installs the billet head on Charles W. Morgan, the world's last wooden whaleship, on exhibit at Mystic Seaport. (Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum)

Looking for a change-of-pace destination cruise that offers fun for the whole family? Some wonderful maritime museums around the country not only have fascinating interactive exhibits and ships to explore, they're also accessible by water. Some have their own docks; others are walking distance from private or municipal marinas with transient slips available. Here are a few to consider for your next adventure.

Mystic Seaport

Mystic, Connecticut

This world-renowned, family-friendly museum features hands-on activities and special events. Discover a re-created 19th century seafaring village, restored vessels, figureheads, ship carvings, and vintage photography — plus galleries with permanent and changing exhibits, and historical interpretations. Climb aboard tall ships and Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship. Also enjoy the planetarium, working shipyard, and 19th century gardens. mysticseaport.org

Cost: Complimentary admission with dockage.

Docking: Mystic Seaport Marina, per-night cost based on LOA.

Cool fact: Until the late 19th century, sailmakers made their own patterns. After measuring the ship's masts and yards, the sailmaker made a paper pattern, then sketched the outline of the sail on the shop floor. To ensure as much workspace as possible, the stove was suspended from the ceiling.

Los Angeles Maritime Museum

San Pedro, California

Los Angeles Maritime Museum

Located in the 1941 Municipal Ferry Terminal (on the National Register of Historic Places), the museum includes exhibits on the area's fishing and canning industries; a century of commercial "hard hat" diving; art created by sailors at sea; history of the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Los Angeles; model ships & boats; and photographs, artifacts, and paintings. The I. Roy Coats Brassroom features brass maritime artifacts from World War II. Narrated tours for museum members are available aboard the tugboat Angels Gate. lamaritimemuseum.org

Cost: Suggested donation $5, adults; $3 seniors. Children 12 and under, free.

Docking: Courtesy docks at Downtown HarborBerth 85 for recreational vessels up to 100 feet, maximum four hours.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum

Madisonville, Louisiana

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum

Native Americans, European explorers, and early settlers depended on Louisiana's extensive bayous, rivers, and lakes for survival and connection to the interior of the state. This small but growing museum takes visitors on a journey through maritime Louisiana, bringing history to life through interpretive programs, exhibits, publications, and oral histories. Learn about the Civil War submarine Pioneer, the canals of New Orleans, lighthouses of Louisiana, American boatbuilding, and the steamboat era. A highlight each year is the Wooden Boat Festival in October, which features more than 100 wooden and classic boats. You might recognize the museum-owned Tchefuncte River Lighthouse from the movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Built in 1837, the lighthouse was badly damaged in the Civil War and rebuilt partially using original materials in 1867–1868. Exterior restorations are complete; interior restoration is ongoing. While the lighthouse is currently closed to visitors, the keeper's cottage was moved to the museum grounds in 2004 and restored in 2011. lpbmm.org

Cost: $5 plus tax; active military and children 5 and under, free.

Docking: Marina Del Ray across the river from the museum offers transient slips. Tie up your dinghy at the wharf or walk 1 mile to the museum. There are a few smaller marinas north of the museum near the charming downtown area, also within about a mile walking distance.

Maine Maritime Museum

Bath, Maine

Maine Maritime Museum

On the banks of the Kennebec River, visit the Bath Iron Works by trolley and boat; visit the Percy & Small Shipyard where schooners were once built; see the last American clipper ship; view more than 140 historic Maine-built or related small boats; learn about the area's lobstering history; see a full-scale replica lighthouse tower lantern room; and more. mainemaritimemuseum.org

Cost: $10–$16; children under 6, free. Fee includes second-day admission within seven-day period.

Docking: Mooring field, floating dock space, and 75-foot pier that accommodates up to 300-foot vessels. No charge for day visitors; included in museum admission.

Cool fact: A merchant ship or fleets' appearance was a sign of prosperity in centuries past, reassuring investors and attracting business. Ship carving, house flags, paint schemes, and sailing cards created brand identity, helping firms persuade, boast, and win in a competitive business.

St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum

St. Augustine, Florida

The 1874 Lighthouse and Keepers' House are restored, including the light's original Fresnel lens. See ship modeling, Heritage Boat Building, and interactive exhibitions. The "Wrecked!" exhibit tells the story of a 1782 British shipwreck that sank on St. Augustine's sandbar, and docent-led tours take visitors through artifact-conservation areas. Climb the light's 219 steps for a panoramic view of St. Augustine, America's oldest continually occupied European-established settlement. staugustinelighthouse.com

Cost: $10.95–$12.95; children under 44 inches, free (but they cannot go in lighthouse).

Docking: Conch House Marina is a 15-minute walk from the museum.

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

St. Michaels, Maryland

Chesapeake Bay Maritime MuseumPhoto: Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Dedicated to the history, environment, and people of the Chesapeake, it features a floating fleet of historic boats, 12 exhibition buildings, tours & scenic boat rides, demonstrations, and a small-boat collection that includes crabbing skiffs, workboats, and log canoes. Tour the 1879 Hooper Straight Lighthouse, learn about the area's shift from work to play, see what it was like to work in a seafood packing house, try your luck at catching crabs in the re-created crabber's shanty, and board an oyster-harvesting skipjack. cbmm.org

Cost: $6–$15; children under 6 and active military, free.

Docking: Available to CBMM members on a first-come first-served basis, reservations accepted.

Cool fact: Friendly mascot Edna Sprit, "Salty Boatyard Kitty & CMO" of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, spends her days chasing squirrels, keeping mice out of the boat shop, inspecting boat-restoration projects, and greeting guests.

Peabody Essex Museum

Salem, Massachusetts

Peabody Essex MuseumPhoto: Peabody Essex Museum

So much more than maritime exhibits. View oil paintings, drawings, ship models, decorative arts, tools, weapons, navigational instruments, and ship & yacht plans from around the world. In addition, there are more than 20,000 objects of oceanic art from more than 36 island groups in Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. pem.org

Cost: $12–$20; youth 16 and younger/Salem residents, free.

Docking: A short walk from transient slips and moorings at Brewer Hawthorne Cove Marina.

Michigan Maritime Museum

South Haven, Michigan

Dedicated to Michigan's Great Lakes and waterways maritime history and culture, five buildings with permanent and changing exhibits, a boatbuilding center, and a regionally renowned research library. Vessels include Lindy Lou, an electric-powered river launch; Friends Good Will, a replica 1810 sloop built in Michigan and sailed on the Great Lakes as a merchant vessel, Royal Navy vessel, and U.S. Navy vessel; a U.S. Coast Guard motor lifeboat; Bernida, a 1921 Universal Rule R Class sloop, and others. michiganmaritimemuseum.org

Cost: $5–$8; members/educators/children under 4, free. Includes dockside boarding of Friends Good Will. Other cruises $15–$50.

Docking: South Haven Municipal Marina has 40-foot slips along the Black River, just steps away from the museum.

Cool fact: After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States found itself plunged into what would become World War II. In response, the nation undertook the greatest industrial, social, and military mobilization the world has ever seen. Lake Michigan played a critical role in its call to duty.

Antique Boat Museum

Clayton, New York

Antique Boat MuseumPhoto: Antique Boat Museum

Located in the beautiful 1000 Islands on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence, this premier museum features some 300 boats and thousands of boating artifacts of importance to the cultural history of North America — particularly the St. Lawrence River. Exhibits include the history of boat racing and canoes, early Dr. Seuss illustrations from Essomarine ads of the 1930s and '40s, and indigenous watercraft known as the St. Lawrence skiff. The museum has an in-water fleet of antique mahogany runabouts. Tour La Duchesse, a 106-foot houseboat built in 1906 for hotelier George Boldt, manager of the famed Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Go for a river cruise aboard a 30-foot triple-cockpit Hacker Craft, or take a quiet row in a traditional skiff on French Creek Bay. A 20,000-square-foot facility housing half the museum's pleasure-boat collection is also open to visitors a couple days a week during summer; all items are tagged with historical info. abm.org

Cost: Free to $38. Military and family discounts available.

Docking: The Mary Street Dock adjacent to the museum offers day and overnight slips. Visit villageofclayton.com/municipal-docks for info. Private marinas nearby offer transient dockage.

National Museum of the Great Lakes

Toledo, Ohio

The Great Lakes contains 84 percent of all freshwater in North America. Discover the lakes' impact on the social, economic, and political history of the country through 300 artifacts, audiovisual displays, and 40 hands-on exhibits. The history spans hundreds of years from fur traders in the 1600s to Underground Railroad operators in the 1800s, the rumrunners of the 1900s, to today's sailors. Exhibits take visitors through maritime technology, exploration and settlement, expansion and industry, shipwrecks and safety, and safeguard and support. Plus, take a guided tour of S.S. Col. James M. Schoonmaker, built in 1911 by Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan, was the largest cargo ship of its time; she carried 12,650 tons of coal on her maiden voyage. inlandseas.org

Cost: $8–$15; children 5 and younger/members, free.

Docking: Toledo Skyway Marina is next door. Visit brenner75.com to book.

Herreshoff Marine Museum/America's Cup Hall of Fame

Bristol, Rhode Island

America's Cup

Bordering picturesque Narragansett Bay, this facility offers two great museums in one place. They are dedicated to the education and inspiration of the public through presentations of the history and innovative work of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company and the America's Cup competition.

The Herreshoff Marine Museum, which preserves and perpetuates the accomplishments of the Herreshoff Marine Company, features more than 60 significant boats from an 81/2-foot dinghy to the 75-foot Defiant, which successfully defended the America's Cup in 1992. In addition, the museum boasts 500 models that Capt. Nathanel Herreshoff used to create his designs.

Also on the campus that houses the museum facility, old family homestead, six former company buildings, and a large portion of the company's waterfront is the America's Cup Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions to yachting's most distinguished competition. The collection includes plaques honoring inductees, half-hull models of challengers and defenders, artifacts including spars, steering wheels, and tank-test model hulls, and special exhibits on America's Cup. herreshoff.org

Cost: $5–$12; children 10 and under/members, free.

Docking: The beautiful facility offers both docks and moorings. Book at Dockwa.com.

Independence Seaport Marina

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Independence Seaport Marina

Visit the region's primary repository of art, artifacts, and archival materials documenting the diverse maritime history of the Greater Delaware Valley, and major urban ports of the Delaware River. Discover Philadelphia's connection to the founding of the U.S. Navy through the little-told story of America's conflict with pirates; view recently uncovered artifacts, and hear first-person accounts regarding the African presence on the Delaware River; explore disasters that unfolded as the Delaware developed into a water highway for trade and commerce; learn about the 40-plus Philadelphians who were on the fateful maiden voyage of Titanic, and more. Ships include the 1892 Cruiser Olympia, the oldest steel warship afloat in the world; Submarine Becuma, launched in 1944 and performed five wartime patrols in the Pacific; and Schooner Diligence, a replica of the 1797 ship that played a vital role in the development of the early Navy. Interact with craftsmen at the active boat shop Workshop on the Water. phillyseaport.org

Cost: $12–$16; children 2 and younger/members, free.

Docking: Daily boat-slip rental available and includes discounted admission to museum and ships.

Columbia River Maritime Museum

Astoria, Oregon

Columbia River BarThe Columbia River Bar is one of the most dangerous passages in the world. (Photo: Columbia River Maritime Museum)

Specializing in maritime artifacts from the Columbia River and Pacific Northwest, it includes more than 30,000 objects, 20,000 photos, and a 10,000-volume research library. Learn about the extreme weather of the Pacific Northwest; explore the forces at work along the Columbia River Bar, where waves can exceed 40 feet during severe winter storms; witness the legendary salmon runs; and tour the floating lighthouse, Lightship Columbia. crmm.org

Cost: $5—$14; children 5 and younger/members, free.

Docking: Daily slips available at the Port of Astoria East Mooring Basin, a 1-mile walk (or $1 trolley ride) to the museum along the Astoria Riverwalk. Visit portofastoria.com for pricing.

Wisconsin Maritime Museum

Manitowoc, Wisconsin

USS CobiaThe USS Cobia. (Photo: Wisconsin Maritime Museum)

Learn, play, and explore the history of the sailors, shipbuilders, and submariners of Wisconsin and the Great Lakes. The 60,000 square foot museum on the shores of Lake Michigan features model ships and boats, a working 1900s Great Lakes ship steam engine, and displays of historic vessels and marine engines.

Kids will love the interactive Waterways Room where you can launch boats into a miniature Lake Superior, sail through locks at Sault Ste. Marie, and navigate the waterfalls of the Wisconsin River. The Riverside Gallery features lifelike fish carvings, and the Maritime History Gallery transports visitors to the 1840s to learn about shipbuilding, shipping, and how Wisconsin shipyards contributed to our nation's growth.

The Wisconsin-built boat gallery houses boats, outboards, and hunting craft used for pleasure and sport; and the Underwater Treasures exhibit focuses on Lake Michigan shipwrecks. Tour the most intact World War II submarine in the United States, USS Cobia, with the oldest working radar in the world. wisconsinmaritime.org

Cost: $8–$15; children 3 and under/active military, free. Admission includes museum and Cobia tour.

Docking: A 10-minute walk from the Manitowoc Marina to the museum.

Nauticus

Norfolk, Virginia

USS WisconsinOn display at Nauticus, Wisconsin is one of the last battleships built by the U.S. Navy. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Aaron Burden)

This contemporary museum located on Norfolk's downtown waterfront showcases global maritime commerce and the world's largest Navy through hands-on, interactive exhibits. View guns, tools, and mementos from Battleship Wisconsin; go back in time to 1880 when the Navy was recovering from post-Civil War decline; and 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world to affirm American Naval strength. Learn about NOAA's underwater parks and weather-related phenomena, plus get hands-on with a variety of Chesapeake Bay inhabitants and sharks in the museum's Horseshoe Crab Cove. Tour Wisconsin, an Iowa-class battleship launched in 1943. At 887 feet, one of the largest and last battleships built by the U.S. Navy, it took part in World War II, the Korean War, and Gulf War. Other activities include Escape Ship aboard a real battleship; solve puzzles, find clues, and decipher codes before time runs out. $20 per person. nauticus.org

Cost: $11.50–$35.95; children 3 and younger/members, free.

Docking: A five-minute walk to Waterside Marina's 100 transient slips. Visit watersidemarina.com to book. 

— Published: June/July 2018


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