A Tale of Two Cities (Or Maybe Just One, and a Small Part of It At That), Or… PhilaPlace the Thames River

In the mid-17th century, English colonists began to settle the region around the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut, and the river has played an important role in the development and history of the area ever since.

Lower Thames River
Lower Thames River, from Google Maps (which wouldn’t embed properly for some reason).

Beginning in the city of Norwich at the confluence of two other rivers, the Thames runs approximately 15 miles south through New London County and empties into Long Island Sound. On the banks of this lower portion of the river are the city of New London on the west and the town of Groton on the east. New London is known as the Whaling City due to that port’s prominence in the whaling industry during the 19th century. While New London’s whaling days have long since passed, today large container vessels and even cruise ships regularly call at State Pier, and the city is also the home of the United States Coast Guard Academy. Across the river, Groton proclaims itself as the Submarine Capital of the World as it is home to both an important U.S. naval submarine base as well as the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics, which has built many of the Navy’s submarines since 1899. The USS NAUTILUS, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine and a product of the EB shipyard, is the star attraction at the Submarine Force Museum, located right outside of the Sub Base’s main gate. The Thames is a natural resource that has shaped the opportunities and the fortunes of these two towns significantly.

My initial idea for my digital project was to create an interactive website that explores how the Thames River has influenced life on its shores over time in Groton and New London, the two communities located at the mouth of the river. However, in the course of doing background research on the topic, I discovered that a local group is working to develop a heritage park around basically this same theme, with several key sites linked together by water taxis. Full disclosure: Groton is my hometown, and while I do recall an experiment with water taxis in the not-too-distant past, I was not aware of plans to develop a heritage park. The fact that this group is currently active in trying to bring their idea to fruition and that it will at some point include a website makes me question whether I should go ahead and do my website as I had originally envisioned the scope of it.

Submarine Capital of the World Sign
Submarine Capital of the World Sign next to I-95. Photo by the author.

What I perhaps could do instead is narrow my scope (ba-dum-bum), focusing on the idea of Groton as the “Submarine Capital of the World.” This version of the website could still get into Groton’s shipbuilding origins, how the Navy comes to town and how the base becomes a sub base (at least for these parts I’m assuming I could find material that could be used on the website). There’s the submarine heyday in town from World War II through perhaps the late 1980s. And then there’s the question of the future, because the significance of the base to the Navy seems to be waning, and EB certainly has seen a decline in submarine building. The idea of Groton as Submarine Capital of the World seems to be becoming a reference more to the town’s history than to its present and future.

Audience

The audience for the Submarine Capital of the World site I imagine would consist of:

  • people interested in the local history of Groton and/or southeastern Connecticut
  • people with an interest in U.S. naval history, particularly relating to the submarine force
  • current and former submariners and their families, particularly those who have been stationed in Groton
  • people interested in or with a personal connection to the work of Electric Boat

The audience for the wider Thames River project would include the above but also be a bit broader, to include those interested in maritime/nautical history more generally especially those interested in the Era of Sail, and people with an interest in or a connection to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Comparison to Existing Projects

My original inspiration for this project was our exploration of PhilaPlace. The website from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania seeks to “connect stories to places across time in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods” by pinning photos, audio, video, and documents to maps of the city and including interpretive text for the pinned locations. So take what PhilaPlace does for neighborhoods and apply it to the Thames River instead.

HistoryPin would seem to be the simplified way to make one’s own PhilaPlace-ish exhibit, but I find it infuriating that it really only seems to be possible to search HistoryPin by geographic location. The only way that I saw to search through the collections or tours was to “browse all,” and then the site fails to tell the user how many pages they would potentially be scrolling through. If I put in the effort to make a tour or collection, I sure would like for people to be able to find it if it’s a topic they’re interested in. (Maybe if you’re a member of the site you get to do a better search???) Consequently, HistoryPin definitely will not be the platform for my project.

WordPress is one alternate option to HistoryPin. Delaware’s Industrial Brandywine is a river-related historical website that uses WordPress as its platform. A product of the Hagley Museum and Library, this website seeks to “document businesses that benefited from the unique geography of the Brandywine River along its eight-mile stretch in Delaware.” It offers historical profiles of more than 100 businesses located on the river from the 17th through 20th centuries which can be accessed via an interactive map or through the categories of people, industry type, or date range. Site users have the opportunity to comment upon individual entries with additional information.

Southeastern Virginia Historical Markers also uses WordPress to good effect. A student project for an undergraduate digital history class at the University of Mary Washington, this website provides photos of roadside historical markers in three Tidewater Virginia counties along with additional information about the person, place, or event described. Markers can be searched by county, category, or century as well as via map. They have also included a tag cloud and a timeline in their presentation.

Omeka provides another potential platform for my website. The Highway 89 Collection uses Omeka to create “an online aggregator and exhibition that brings together the stories of US 89, as it travels through the state of Utah.” As such, the emphasis of the site at least for now is not on interpretation but in bringing together images, documents, and audio and then situating them on their interactive map and timeline. Users can also search by tags, or browse through several exhibits organized around broad themes.

Planned Website

My planned website would be similar in function and general feel to the examples cited above. I have to give more thought to whether it would be better to use Omeka or WordPress to create my site. My sense is that Omeka (which I recall describing as WordPress for online exhibits) might be the more robust choice, but WordPress does have the advantage that I am at least familiar with how to use it.

Whichever way my platform and topic selections actually go, I would like to incorporate an interactive map feature. Nothing fancy, Google MyMaps should be enough to pin digital assets to their physical location. Having a map that could change by time period I would think would be more important for the broader project than the submarine-oriented one. I like the idea of an interactive timeline, but I need to explore the options in terms of what plug-ins and such are available for each platform.

I want the site to be heavy on images such as photographs, postcards, artwork and such. I would love to be able to put oral histories on there, with links to audio or video as well as the transcripts. And I’m not opposed to adding other relevant text-based documents to the site as well. I like the idea of being able to organize these objects into thematic collections or exhibits. The site should also allow users to make comments on individual objects or on the site itself, and it should also have a mechanism for allowing users to contribute their own content.

Outreach/Publicity

To spread the word about my website, I would use a mixture of traditional and modern methods. Since this is a local history project, I would send a press release out to the area’s primary newspaper, The Day, to see if they might publish some info about it. I would also contact the submarine base’s newspaper, The Dolphin. I would probably also contact local libraries, school principals, and relevant museums and historical organizations to spread the word. Social media of course is the modern way to garner publicity, so I envision posting on Facebook pages that are relevant to my prospective audiences and maybe also establishing a Twitter account for the project and perhaps posting an image weekly and providing links to pertinent news items as they arise.

Plan for Evaluation

Once I have the basics of the website going, I would actively solicit feedback from members of my target audiences as to their experience of the website, what they liked and didn’t, what else they might like to see the site add, etc. Another measure of success would be the extent to which members of the public either commented upon the site or perhaps more importantly sought to contribute relevant content themselves.

 

One Reply to “A Tale of Two Cities (Or Maybe Just One, and a Small Part of It At That), Or… PhilaPlace the Thames River”

  1. I enjoyed reading this project proposal. You did a great job setting up what you are focusing in on and why and covering how various tools would or wouldn’t be right for this. As to what way to build it, I think it comes down to a question of if your site will be collection focused or narrative focused. If it’s about a collection, then Omeka is the way to go. If it’s more of a narrative then WordPress is likely the better choice. With that, I think a google mymap should be an easy way to integrate a geographic component.

    At this point, I think the biggest thing for you to do is make some decisions on the scope of what you think you can get done in the course of the semester. So, are you going to put up X number of pages about X number of thematic issues? Or are you going to have X number of items, etc. You get to set the terms of what you plan to make and you want enough of it here to be able to show what the whole thing would look like if it were built out, but you also want it to be small enough that you can get it done well in the semester and also do some of the outreach/evaluation sort of stuff with it. With that, I was thrilled to see you include plans to do targeted work to solicit feedback from folks that would represent your audience. So if you want to think through some of the specifics of what you think you can get done in a semester and post them in the comments here you should be good to go.

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