Not So Marvelous Mystic
by Rhonda Phillips 1999

Mystic, Connecticut, home to the famous Museum of America and the Sea, has much to offer maritime buffs, but I found that visiting it in a wheelchair is about as easy as walking a gangplank.

Last fall, I drove with my friend Amie from Newport, Rhode Island to spend the day in Mystic. I use a manual chair but am glad I brought along such a strong, willing helper as the terrain (although largely flat) was difficult at times due to architectural barriers.

Located about 10 miles east of New London, Connecticut, Mystic is on Route 27, just one mile south of Interstate 95, Exit 90.

Mystic has been the scene of shipbuilding since the 1600s, and the museum was founded in an old riverside shipyard in 1929 to preserve pieces of maritime history. Over the years, old ships and historic buildings were brought to the site, and the complex began to take shape on the banks of the Mystic River.

There was ample disabled parking the day we visited. As we paid our admissions ($16.00 each), we were handed a copy of the Mystic Seaport Guide to Access, which we used in conjunction with a map handed out to every able-bodied visitors.

Slowly, we made our way along the cobblestone walkways, and began exploring the 17-acre facility. The museum chronicles America’s relationship with sea going ships by recreating a 19th century village of historic ships, buildings devoted to various trades, museum collections, and live demonstrations. As I bumped along the cobblestone walkways and bogged down in gravel paths, it was clear to me that authenticity took precedence over comfort here. But then again, how much access was available in any 19th century seaport? As most of us know, aesthetics often win out over access needs when it comes to historical preservation.

Visitors can wander through a host of buildings devoted to crafts of that time and watch the staff members demonstrate everything from a working printing press to cooperage and the art of building ships. There are also gallery exhibits devoted to figureheads, shipbuilding, and scrimshaw.

While there is a lot for an able-bodied person to see at Mystic, the access to a large portion of the buildings and ships is unavailable to people using wheelchairs.

Mystic SeaportThe site has several large sailing ships that have challenging access. Perhaps the most impressive ship is The Charles W. Morgan, the last American wooden sailing whaling ship. Unfortunately, it had a very steep, narrow ramp that was more suitable for a tightrope walker. If one does make it up the ramp (through some miracle), only the main deck is usable.

The Joseph Conrad ship is even more impossible for a wheelchair chair user. The same goes for the L.A. Dutton and the Sabino, a steamship.

For the most part, the historical buildings are equally challenging. Many buildings have several steps (the planetarium has nine), and buildings that do have a ramp may only provide access to the first floor.

Thankfully, the complex does offer an accessible bathroom at the main entrance to the site.

For snacks, the Galley Restaurant is accessible, which is a good thing as visitors are not allowed to bring food and/or beverages into the complex.

Despite the many architectural obstacles we encountered, we found Mystic Seaport to be a scenic place to visit on a fall day when the sun is shining on the sparkling blue river and the colorful autumn leaves dazzle visitors. However, since access leaves a lot to be desired at Mystic, it is important that wheelchair users realize how little is available to them here.

For an in-depth survey of the Mystic’s access, visit their web site at and decide if you want to put Mystic on your travel itinerary.

The museum grounds are open daily (except Christmas) from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $16.00 for adults.

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