The Connecticut River runs over 400 miles from the Connecticut Lakes near the Canadian border down through Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut to Long Island Sound in Old Saybrook. The Connecticut River Museum began as a volunteer organization in the 1970s, housed in a 1870s Steamboat Warehouse, and has since expanded into a museum with an impressive collection of artifacts and art, a replica sailing ship, a combat submarine, and a calendar filled with special events, programs, and workshops.
The museum is spread out over three floors of exhibits: a rotating exhibit on the 3rd floor and permanent exhibits on the first and second floors. There is also a small display in the boathouse room. We found the exhibits engaging and informative and appropriate for upper elementary aged students and older. Toddlers might have a hard time not touching everything and won’t be able to read all the informative signage; however, ALL ages will LOVE the train show (so bring kids of all ages to the train show and hold on to toddlers closely).
The museum is open from Tuesday through Sunday. Check here for updates on hours and admissions.
There is plenty of parking available to the left of the main museum and parallel parking on the street.
The museum is handicap accessible with an elevator and strollers are allowed.
Restrooms and a small gift shop are located by the admission desk on the main floor.
Plan on 60-90 minutes to explore the museum, more time for the train show and to explore the grounds.
There are tons of dining options near the museum. Within walking distance of the museum is Carlson’s Landing (upscale, water views), Essex Coffee and Tea Company (warm and cold drinks and delicious baked goods and sweet treats), Ashley’s Ice Cream (award winning and well deserved!), and the famous Griswold Inn (it dates back to the late 1700s).
More information on the town of Essex here.
10 Things to Do at the River Museum:
1. Complete the scavenger hunt for the trains show (3rd floor). For the 27th year, the train show includes 500 train cars. Children can complete a scavenger hunt of a dozen items hidden within the displays and earn a prize when completed. There are also trains available for purchase. The exhibit runs from late November through mid February. There is a rotating exhibits every 3-4 months on the 3rd floor, so visit often to see the variety of displays.
2. Look up (or down) for the pulley system used throughout all three floors to carry supplies and merchandise throughout the museum. While it is no longer in service, it would be fun to imagine how staff might transport supplies.
3. Choose a favorite replica steamship or packetship, dating back to the mid 1800s, from the dozen on display on the second floor.
4. Match tools like hammers, chisels, and augers with their job for helping to build the ships in the nearby shipyard. (Hint: augers were some of the most common tools, used to drill large holes through planks).
5. Watch the 12 minute introductory video that highlights the history and ecology of the river. (2nd floor)
6. Follow the timeline of efforts to stop current and prevent further pollution of the Connecticut River- we all have a role in cleaning up the environment! (2nd floor)
7. Learn about the Oliver Cromwell, a ship of 300 tons commissioned by Governor Jonathan Trumbull, Connecticut’s first warship. (1st floor)
8. Light up the timeline of the British Raid on Essex in April of 1814. (1st floor)
9. Trace the chronological history of the “Great River” with displays dating back to 1776. (1st floor)
10. Peek inside Bushnell’s Turtle, the world’s first operational combat submarine, built in nearby Westbrook in 1775. A replica of the Turtle, commissioned for America’s bicentennial and tested in the river in 1976, is currently on display in the boathouse.
Bonus: Take a cruise aboard the Onrust. Docked in front of the museum during the summer and early fall months, the Onrust is a replica of one of the first sailing ships that explored the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound. The replica ship launched in 2009 and offers daily visits (included with museum admission) and public cruises three times a day from June through mid October- more info here.
For more fun in Connecticut, check out our top 30 list of things to do and our list of 32 places where we love to eat. For nearby fun (only 10 minutes away), check out our adventures at the Florence Griswold Museum in Lyme. And follow along on our adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.
Disclosure: We were given a media pass to explore the museum. Given pandemic restrictions, all guests must make a reservation to visit the museum. We felt incredibly safe visiting, as there were only 6 other people, staff included, in the museum the entire visit. All opinions expressed are my own. Please check online for the most up to date information before visiting.