May 22nd is National Maritime Day, first declared by the United States Congress in 1933. This holiday is observed on the date that the American steamship Savannah set sail from Savannah, Georgia on the first ever transoceanic voyage under steam power in 1819. National Maritime Day was created to recognize the maritime industry and the benefits it brings to Americans in terms of transportation, jobs, goods, and recreational opportunities. It also honors the contributions of the American merchant marine, civilians who have defended the freedom of the United States since 1775, and who executed the largest sealift the world has ever known during World War II.
In 2009 on Maritime Day, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History opened a new exhibit, “On the Water: Stories from Maritime America.” The maritime exhibit is part of the museum’s larger transportation exhibit, “America on the Move.” “On the Water” is organized into seven sections focusing on maritime life in America from the 17th century to the present, arranged chronologically: Living in the Atlantic World, 1450-1800; Maritime Nation, 1800-1850; Fishing for a Living, 1840-1920; Inland Waterways, 1820-1940; Ocean Crossings, 1870-1969; Answering the Call, 1917-1945; and Modern Maritime America. The exhibition incorporates the stories of real people—sailors, immigrants, fishermen and many others—to allow visitors to explore American history through personal experiences. Objects, graphics and interactives transport visitors onto sailing ships, a Mississippi River towboat, ocean liners, an Alaskan fishing trawler, a U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender, cruise ships and tankers, to give them to get a taste of life “On the Water.”
Can’t visit the Museum’s maritime exhibition in person? Want to learn more about the maritime collections? A companion website contains the same historical content as the physical exhibition, plus a searchable database that provides additional information and photographs for selected artifacts in the exhibition. Multimedia resources and educational activities round out the experience. Visit the online exhibition.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego preserves one of the largest collections of historic sea vessels in the United States on San Diego’s downtown waterfront. At the Maritime Museum, visitors relive history and learn about the science of the sea in ships and collections representing San Diego’s great maritime heritage.
Wikipedia has a complete list of maritime museums in the United States that display objects related to ships and water travel. Many of these maritime museums have museum ships in their collections. Wikipedia also has a separate list of museum ships that are not affiliated with a museum. Visit one near you!
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration has a web page just for kids and teachers with videos and other resources.
See also: America’s Maritime Industry: The Foundation of American Seapower – includes two reports: America’s Maritime Industry: The Foundation of American Seapower (.pdf) and Maritime Americans: Vital to the Future of Our Country (.pdf)