Maritime Wonders: Exploring the Mariners’ Museum’s Treasured Collection

Since 1968, the Mariners’ Museum and Park has been the premier maritime institution in the country, recognized by the US Congress for their extensive 35,000+ item collection and guiding mission of education and conservation. Their ocean-centric exhibits range from intricate ship models to a true-size replica of the infamous ironclad Civil War-era USS Monitor and an IMAX theater showing films about the deepest reaches of the ocean landscape.

Their 60,000 square feet museum is full of nautical history to discover, belying their belief that our world is “linked through the water.” And admission is only $1, one of the best deals you’ll find anywhere! After spending a few hours inside, explore the surrounding Mariners’ Park – one of the nation’s largest privately owned and maintained parks – where you can walk along the path by the lake, have lunch in the shade, and enjoy the tranquil setting by the James River.

Indulge your inner history buff and plan your stay at our Williamsburg bed and breakfast – history abounds in every direction, from the world-famous living history museums in the Historic Triangle to the Mariners’ Museum, which is just a scenic 30-minute drive south of Williamsburg.

The CSS Monitor, Civil War Battles in Nearby Waters, and the Legend of Ironclad Ships

One of the museum’s most fascinating exhibits focuses on the USS Monitor, which played a pivotal role in strengthening the Union’s naval fleet during the most fierce years of fighting during the Civil War. In response to devastating attacks from the Confederate ship CSS Virginia – the first vessel to have ironclad protection around its wooden hull – the Union set out to build an iron-wrapped ship of its own. Under the direction of brilliant inventor and engineer John Ericsson, the Union constructed the Monitor in less than 90 days, all the more impressive due to its massive size (it had a 30-ton, 400-horsepower engine).

Replica of the U.S.S. Monitor at the Mariner's Museum in Virginia
"Replica of the U.S.S. Monitor, Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia," by Mytwocents, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

It quickly entered into battle, including the much-storied CSS Monitor versus CSS Virginia Battle of Hampton Roads in March of 1862, near the museum’s current location. They launched cannons mercilessly at each other, only to end in a draw, but it demonstrated the value and protection of being clad in iron on the high seas. President Lincoln would even pay his respects with a visit to the crew aboard the Monitor, honoring their bravery and the resilience of the ship he had commissioned. The USS Monitor would also play a critical role in protecting General McClellan during the Union’s “peninsula campaign,” when months-long Civil War battles occurred in and around Yorktown, Williamsburg, and ultimately Richmond.

Today, you can see a life-size replica of the USS Monitor at the museum and walk along the deck, feeling what it was like for the Union soldiers who lived and fought on board over 150 years ago. You can also glimpse actual pieces of the USS Monitor, discovered 230 feet down on the ocean floor off the coast of North Carolina (it sank on New Year’s Eve of 1862). The Monitor’s legendary gun turret – the first-ever rotating turret on a sea vessel at the time – was recovered in 2002, and the museum is currently removing corrosion and chloride, exemplifying the Mariners’ goal of preserving history rather than just presenting it. You can observe their high-tech conservation methods, which include dry-ice blasting, 3-D modeling parts of the USS Monitor, and soaking the recovered iron-wrapped turret in a five-year chloride removal process.

Exhibits on Every Ship Imaginable, Immersive Theater-going, and Special Museum Events

Although the USS Monitor takes center stage with its size and maritime importance, there are numerous other exhibits to check out. You’ll see incredibly detailed model-sized replicas of historic ships from different periods, varying in size from 4 to 8 feet, alongside hulking anchors and ship turbines (each a staggering 15-20 feet tall and unreal when standing next to them). The small crafts wing showcases boat styles from around the globe, including ancient Chinese vessels and those used by indigenous Polynesian explorers on the vast Pacific Ocean.

Be sure to catch a screening in the Explorers’ Theater, where engrossing films explore the ocean’s known and still unknown, a fun and awe-inspiring experience for all ages.

Check the museum’s calendar for upcoming special lecture series in the fall of 2023, including 11/3 and 11/17, when distinguished Museum Director Emeritus John V. Quarstein will give in-depth presentations about Civil War-era ships and their fascinating history.

More Than Just a Museum – Exploring the Natural Beauty of Mariners’ Park

In addition to their aim of maritime education, the founders of the Mariners’ Museum were also inspired by nature preservation, leading them to create the 550-acre Mariners’ Park. After spending a few hours browsing through the museum (allow at least 2-3 hours to see all the exhibits), stroll along the Noland walking trail, which winds for 5 miles around Mariners’ Lake. If you’re into bird-watching, bring your binoculars, as various bird species visit the woods and waterscapes within the confines of the expansive park.

A group of people having a picnic in the middle of a park

Fourteen picturesque bridges cross over the lake at different points along the Noland trail, including the impossible-to-miss “Lions Bridge,” where you’ll see several lion statues carved by the wife of the museum’s founder. The Lions Bridge abuts the James River, a perfect place to enjoy the breeze blowing in off the water and imagine the days of old when the ironclad USS Monitor sailed up this same stretch of the James.

The park also holds a Fall Festival every year (in 2023 on November 4th), when the local Newport News and Virginia peninsula community comes together for live music, pumpkin carving, beer and cider tasting, and food trucks from local restaurants.

Stay with us and dive into nautical history, maritime lore, and nature by the water at the Mariners’ Museum and Park!

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