GROTON, Conn. -- The USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear powered submarine, will be towed up the Thames River this week to retirement as a floating museum, ending a quarter-century of wandering the world's oceans.
Thousands of people are expected to line the river banks Saturday and catch a glifpse of history as the sleek, black boat slips past New London Ledge Light, swings hard into the Thames and comes home to Groton.
'It's just like the old diesel boats; they were good boats in their day but their day has passed. The Nautilus today looks like an old horse shay (carriage),' said retired Adm. David B. Bell.
The 38-year Navy veteran is president of the Submarine Force Library and Museum, where tourists will scramble the decks of the Nautilus starting next spring.
History's first nuclear-powered vessel was decommissioned in 1980 and its reactor has been deactivated and sealed.
The Nautilus, built at Electric Boat in Groton and launched in 1954, returns after eight years of lobbying and fund raising by state residents in time to celebrate Connecticut's 350th birthday.
The powerless and empty vessel embarked from San Francisco Harbor in late May tethered to a tow ship for its final journey through the Panama Canal to the familiar waters of the Atlantic.
The Nautilus left the old whaling port of New London 31 years ago on its maiden voyage and roamed nearly 500,000 nautical miles during 25 years of service deep beneath polar ice caps and tropical seas.
She carried no missiles but was still the pride of the Navy fleet in the decade of Sputnik and the hydrogen bomb.
The 319-foot boat returns home dwarfed by the giant Trident missile-firing submarines hidden while under construction at the nearby EB shipyard.
'Some people call it the Model-T of the nuclear fleet now,' said James Norris of Mystic, Conn., who helped make history when he guided the Nautilus safely past submerged mountains and through uncharted ice seas under the North Pole.
Norris is a postal worker at the sumbarine base in Groton now, but on Aug. 3, 1958, he was in his early 30s and chief sonar technician aboard the Nautilus.
'We were just busy doing our jobs,' he recalled. 'We didn't think about the history part until we pulled over in England. It was the answer to Sputnik, that's what it was.'
Cmdr. William Anderson had cakes baked for the occasion and 'some guys did dances and a couple of guys wrote songs,' said Norris who retired a master chief technician after 24 years.
The Nautilus, with 116 men aboard, was hailed around the world as the first vessel to navigate 'true north.' It was but one of a host of records held by the fastest and deepest-diving submarine of her time.
The Nautilus, christened by Mamie Eisenhower in January 1954 less than six months after the armistice in Korea, harnessed the power of the atom in an anxious period of Cold War.
The French were fought to a standstill that year in Indochina, a bloody prelude to the American agony of Vietnam, and a thaw in East-West relations was doomed to stop at the Berlin Wall.
At home, the civil rights movement was stirring, beatniks rejected crew-cut America and the word 'McCarthyism' crept into the language of a nation swelled with prosperity but nagged by suspicion.
The top-secret work of scientists and engineers with the Atomic Energy Commission, headed by then Capt. Hyman Rickover, made the Nautilus possible.
The message 'Underway on nuclear power' was sent in January 1955 and five months later, the Nautilus headed for a shakedown cruise to Puerto Rico.
The Nautilus had a top speed of more than 20 knots submerged, was fitted with six torpedo tubes and bristled with the most advanced electronics of the era. She could dive more than 400 feet and displaced more than 3,000 tons.
The Cuban missile crisis brought a U.S. blockade of the island nation and the Nautilus was dispatched to the Caribbean.
The Nautilus was used to develope submarine and anti-submarine warfare tactics and saw service with the U.S. Sixth and Atlantic fleets.
The Nautilus is now a National Historic Landmark and will be recommissioned with a Navy crew in the manner of the USS Constitution and Arizona.
The new submarine museum featuring the Nautilus will be dedicated April 11, 1986, the 86th anniversary of the Navy's acceptance of the first American submarine, the USS Holland.
The Connecticut Nautilus Committee has raised about $2.5 million for the facility, about half its goal. The federal government provided $2 million and the state another $1 million.