Newport News’ Mariners’ Museum has its own history

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NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - The conceptual drawing for The Mariners' Museum called for a grand building on the east side of Lake Maury, overlooking the Lion’s Bridge and the James River.

The Great Depression canceled those plans.

“The museum’s never been built,” quipped John Warren, a museum spokesman.

Proposed in the 1920s, it opened without fanfare on Oct. 29, 1933, inside what had previously been warehouse space. Several hundred artifacts were displayed in one long room on sawhorse tables, with figureheads and paintings on the walls, according to the museum’s history in a docent training manual.

Archer M. Huntington, heir to Collis P. Huntington, founder of Central Pacific Railroad and the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., wanted a museum dedicated to “the culture of the sea and its tributaries, its conquest by man and its influence on civilization,” according to a biography by Beatrice Gilman Proske.

In 1930, he and his wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington, acquired hundreds of acres of land surrounding a creek, less than 10 miles from Newport News Shipbuilding. A dam, known as Lion’s Bridge, created Lake Maury. The undeveloped land became a park and wildlife refuge.

The Great Depression may have scrapped plans for the original building, but collectors like Huntington turned the country’s financial problems to their advantage by picking up items on the cheap, said Anna Holloway, vice president of collections and programs at the museum. Thousands of artifacts were purchased and donated from all over the world.

From 1932 to 1939, the museum had its own model-making shop. The models were accurately constructed on a scale of a quarter-inch to the foot of modern ships and famous vessels, according to Huntington’s biography.

By 1933, the maritime reference library had its own wing and 5,000 volumes. In 1936, the museum added a large exhibition hall. New library quarters came in 1939.

Huntington’s wife, an accomplished sculptor, also designed several statues on display around the museum, including a monument to Collis P. Huntington.

Known for his philanthropy, Huntington believed a museum should have a single purpose, Holloway said.

“The Mariners’ Museum was to be everything maritime,” she said.

It now boasts 90,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, and its collection reflects more than 3,000 years of maritime history.

In 1987, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated the museum as the custodian of artifacts from the Monitor, which fought in the Civil War’s Battle of the Ironclads. The 63,500-square-foot Monitor Center includes a full-scale replica of the Monitor and artifacts such as the cannon, turret and steam engine that are there for conservation. Federal funding cuts have caused officials to close part of the conservation lab.

Congress designated the museum “America’s National Maritime Museum” in 1998. And with more than 1.7 million items at The Mariners’ Museum Library at Christopher Newport University, it is the largest maritime history collection in the Western Hemisphere.

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