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Celebrating the Coasties

A $50 million grant means groundbreaking is about to start for the National Coast Guard Museum
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How many people could you save from a sinking boat using a Lyle gun? In the late 19th century, members of the U.S. Coast Guard would stand on shore and fire the line-throwing gun invented by a military man named David Lyle. The basic act of firing the gunpowder-packed gun could knock it back 6 feet and send waterproof, braided line nearly the length of six football fields. That line would sail toward (and, hopefully, onto) the vessel in distress. A “life car” would then be sent out on the line, to collect people and bring them ashore.

“The specificity that the Coast Guard has to locate you by GPS, put a helicopter over your boat and pluck you off the deck—that’s certainly hard to do, but it’s a lot easier than shooting a Lyle gun from the shore,” says Drew Forster, director of communications and public relations for the National Coast Guard Museum Association.

Everyone will have a chance to test their Lyle gun skills in three to four years, through an interactive video-game exhibit at the National Coast Guard Museum. Groundbreaking for the museum is scheduled to start this summer in New London, Connecticut, following receipt of a federal grant.

The waterfront museum will be an 80,000-square-foot building as well as the home port for Eagle, “America’s Tall Ship” that’s used for Coast Guard training. The city of New London is expected to operate the nearby pier, with transient dockage for boaters.

Volunteers have been advocating for the museum’s creation for years. In 2015, a permanent staff was hired to lead the effort; it has been working on design, permits and fundraising. So far, the association has brought in $31 million, which Forster says is the most ever raised for a Coast Guard philanthropic mission. But that $31 million is not nearly enough to cover the total estimated project cost of $150 million. Some $100 million is needed for the building’s construction, so fund-raising was $69 million short for that aspect of the project. Other aspects— $30 million for exhibits, and $20 million to build a pedestrian bridge connecting the museum and waterfront to a train station and the downtown area—are coming from state and federal funding.

The National Coast Guard Museum will be built in New London, Connecticut, which is already the home of the United States Coast Guard Academy.

The National Coast Guard Museum will be built in New London, Connecticut, which is already the home of the United States Coast Guard Academy.

In March, another $50 million in federal funding was announced for the building’s construction, meaning there’s only $19 million left to raise for the building’s construction.

“That last $19 million should be easier to raise than the first $31 million was,” Forster told Soundings after the grant was announced. “Everybody loves a winner. That’s what it comes down to. We’re taking a lot more meetings in the last two to three weeks than we had in the first three months of the year.”

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who led the push for the additional federal funds, said the Coast Guard is the only military branch that lacks an institution to showcase its history and heroism. The National Coast Guard Museum will tell that story by focusing on five storylines: Defenders of the Nation, Enforcers of the Seas, Lifesavers Around the Globe, Champions of Commerce, and Protectors of the Environment.

Defenders of the Nation will focus on ways the Coast Guard has participated in every major conflict since the service was founded in 1790. Among other things, visitors will learn about Guardsman Douglas Munro, who was posthumously awarded the medal of honor after being shot and killed at age 22 while piloting a boat to shield a landing craft full of Marines during the Guadalcanal Campaign in 1942.

Enforcers of the Seas is an exhibit that will explore the unique role the Coast Guard has as both a military service and a law enforcement agency, telling stories about everything from migrant and drug interdiction to the days of alcohol smuggling during Prohibition.

Lifesavers Around the Globe will center around ways the Coast Guard saves lives, including its search-and-rescue missions. “We have some immersive exhibits in this one, including one about Ida Lewis, who was once called the bravest woman in America,”
Forster says. “You’ll experience the sights and sounds of an ice rescue as she did, where she tied a rope around herself and went out on the ice to rescue a couple of people who had fallen in.”

This wing of the museum will also feature Capt. Richard Etheridge, who headed an all-Black lifesaving crew at Pea Island, North Carolina. “We have a specific rescue that they performed,” Forster says. “You’ll be taken into one of their most daring rescues and get a sense about what their rescue work was like in the mid- to late-19th century.”

The Champions of Commerce section, sponsored by the Power family, will be located on the building’s J.D. Power III Stewardship Deck. “He served in the Coast Guard in the 1960s. He was part of the first Operation Deep Freeze down in Antarctica,” Forster says. “He talks about what he later took into J.D. Power & Associates—what he learned about teamwork and the importance of everyone’s voice being heard, everyone’s ideas being counted.”

Forster says this part of the museum will also help visitors understand “how everything in your local Target and Walmart would not be there if not for the Coast Guard managing our ports along our coasts. Think about the traffic control in the lakes and rivers, managing all the aids to navigation on big rivers like the Mississippi, on the Great Lakes, in the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

Protectors of the Environment will include immersive exhibits about events such as the Exxon-Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, and the Coast Guard’s role in the cleanup. Visitors also will learn about sea life and fisheries that the Coast Guard monitors. “There is an enforcement zone that covers 2.25 million square miles with 110,000 commercial fishing vessels in the U.S. registry,” Forster says. “Just the U.S. vessels alone could be capable of depleting U.S. fish stocks, and then there are the foreign-flagged vessels that might enter into those areas.”

The museum also will have a STEM Discovery Center where children and adults can learn about science, technology, engineering and math through the lens of the Coast Guard. School field trips and corporate training exercises will place visitors in age-appropriate command-center scenarios where they need to work together.

More exhibits are being organized now, with experts from museum-design firms and the Coast Guard developing additional storylines and identifying artifacts for display. “All of these exhibits have been stored in a warehouse in Virginia for a very long time,” Forster says. “It’s great that they’re going to get out and see the light of day so visitors can interact with them.” 

This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue.

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