Last Updated on August 14, 2023
By Dave G. Houser
*** See Note at the end of this article.
America is home to more than 35,000 museums — preserving and displaying just about everything from beer cans to barbed wire. Most of them are brick-and-mortar repositories, but there’s also a genre of floating museums.
Museum ships are in coastal harbors and inland waterways across the country. Most are historically significant naval vessels, decommissioned and conserved to live second lives in honor of their officers and crew — and to help educate the public about America’s storied maritime heritage. Other vessels, such as windjammers, dredges, and lighthouse tenders, have been similarly converted and, in most cases, serve as exhibits at maritime museums.
Condensing our research into this unique and fascinating category of museums, we’ve identified the following 15 vessels as some of the best among America’s museum ships. Many are military vessels, but some are not.
Fall River, Massachusetts
Known as “Big Mamie” to her crew members during World War II, this South Dakota-class battleship resides with other U.S. Navy vessels in Fall River’s Battleship Cove, a maritime ships museum and war memorial that features the world’s most extensive collection of WWII naval vessels.
Highly decorated with 11 battle stars, “Big Mamie” saw action with Atlantic and Pacific fleets from 1942 to 45. In the Pacific, she participated in the Solomon Islands and Philippines campaigns. Her crew saved the vessel from scrapping at war’s end, convincing the Navy to donate her for public display. Also in Battleship Cove are the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy and the submarine USS Lionfish.
USS North Carolina
Wilmington, North Carolina
The first newly constructed battleship to enter service during World War II, the USS North Carolina was a workhorse, taking part in every major naval offensive in the Pacific theater. Her 15 battle stars made her the most decorated battleship of the war.
The ship received so much attention for her performance in the war that she earned the lasting nickname “Showboat.” She is now a famous museum ship and memorial kept at the Wilmington Seaport.
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
One of the most illustrious and active of the WWII-era Essex-class aircraft carriers serving the U.S. Navy, the USS Yorktown participated in several campaigns in the Pacific theater, earning 11 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. She later served in the Vietnam War, earning five more battle stars.
Late in her career, this museum ship was deployed as a recovery vessel for the Apollo 8 space mission and was used in the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” a film that recreated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A National Historic Landmark, you can go aboard the USS Yorktown at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina right outside Charleston.
Another South Dakota-class battleship, the USS Alabama, served in World War II in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, earning nine Navy battle stars. While she fought many battles and was credited with downing 22 Japanese attack aircraft, she was also noted for never losing a sailor due to enemy action.
Decommissioned in 1947, she was placed in the reserve fleet at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. In 1964, Alabama was moved to Mobile Bay and opened as a museum ship the following year.
The ship was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Visitors to Mobile’s Battleship Memorial Park can also tour the USS Drum, a submarine that patrolled from Pearl Harbor during WWII.
San Diego, California
Although she missed out on World War II — commissioned a week after the war’s end — the USS Midway was the largest ship in the world until 1955 and served the U.S. Navy for an unprecedented 47 years. She saw action in the Vietnam War and served with distinction as the Persian Gulf flagship in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm.
Decommissioned in 1992, she is now a museum ship at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego — home to the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Visitors can tour the ship, including its massive flight deck featuring more than two dozen aircraft. Among the docent guides leading tours are many former crew members.
An Iowa-class battleship, the USS Missouri was the last battleship commissioned by the United States during World War II. She joined the action in the Pacific in 1944, fighting in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
Mothballed in 1955 but reactivated and modernized in 1984, the ship saw further action providing fire support during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Missouri is the recipient of 11 battle stars for service in World War II, Korea, and the Persian Gulf. It was finally decommissioned after 16 years of active service in 1992.
In 1998, she became a museum ship at Pearl Harbor, where she is docked near the USS Arizona Memorial.
If there were to be a grand prize for America’s most outstanding museum ship, it would surely go to the USS Constitution. Launched in 1797 and named by President George Washington after the Constitution of the United States, the three-masted, wooden-hulled frigate is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat.
Built in Boston, where she still resides, Constitution is most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom when she defeated five British warships. Although she retired from active service in 1881, she never stopped sailing.
Designated a museum ship in 1907, she completed a three-year, 90-port tour of the nation in 1934. She sailed under her own power for her 200th birthday in 1997 and again in 2012 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her victories in the War of 1812. “Old Ironsides,” as we know her, is free to visit at Boston National Historical Park, part of the Charlestown Navy Yard.
William M. Black
She’s no battleship, but this 1934 steam-propelled side-wheel dredge served the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for nearly 40 years battling mud and silt on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. One of the last paddle steamers built in the United States, William M. Black carried a crew of 49 and dredged 80,000 cubic yards of material a day.
A rare example of a steam-powered dredge, she now serves as a museum ship and is open for tours at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
Star of India
San Diego, California
Originally named Euterpe, this full-rigged iron windjammer was built in Britain in 1863 for the Indian jute trade. After a long career racing back and forth from Great Britain to India and later transporting emigrants to New Zealand and Australia, the Star of India became a salmon hauler on the Alaska to California route.
Retired in 1926, she was eventually restored in the early 1960s. She is now a seaworthy museum ship home-ported (along with nearly a dozen other historic vessels) at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. She is the oldest iron-hull merchant ship still sailing regularly, and she’s both a California Historical Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.
United States Lightship Columbia
Lightship Columbia never sailed anywhere during her 28-year career as a floating lighthouse marking the approach to the Columbia River. Instead, life for the 18-man Coast Guard crew was marked by long stretches of monotony mixed with periods of dread while riding out gale-force storms.
Columbia was the last lightship to be decommissioned on the U.S. West Coast. An automated navigational buoy replaced her in 1979. Now a museum ship, Columbia anchors exhibits at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria.
Los Angeles, California
The battleship USS Iowa served in WWII, Korea, and the Cold War. Today, the historic museum ship is an iconic Los Angeles landmark and is one of the region’s top 10 attractions for families and visitors of all ages. It has also been rated as one of the “Best Cool Exhibits to See With Your Kids” by CBS Los Angeles.
USS Iowa was the only ship of her class to serve in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.
She did, in fact, secretly carry President Franklin D. Roosevelt across the Atlantic to Mers El Kébir, Algeria, in 1943. Roosevelt was en route to a conference in Tehran with Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom and Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union.
The USS Iowa was transferred to the Pacific Fleet in 1944, where she shelled beachheads in advance of Allied amphibious landings and protected aircraft carriers operating in the Marshall Islands. At the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, she also served as Admiral William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet flagship.
Iowa was involved in raids on the North Korean coast during the Korean War. She was decommissioned in October 1990.
The last surviving Dreadnought, the USS Texas, was considered the most potent weapon in the world when it was commissioned in 1914. This museum ship is credited with introducing and innovating advances in gunnery, aviation, and radar. Today she is the only surviving battleship that saw combat in both World War I and World War II.
In World War 1 the Texas crossed the Atlantic to reinforce the British blockade of Germany.
On December 7th, 1941, the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor. USS Texas was in Maine, preparing to go on another North Atlantic “Neutrality Patrol,” watching for German U-boats. Her first wartime patrol occurred shortly after when she escorted a convoy of merchant ships to Iceland.
Her convoy duty continued throughout the Spring and through the Summer of 1942. She then joined the forces assembled for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. She also supported the Allied invasion of Normandy before being transferred to the Pacific to support troops in the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
USS New Jersey
Camden, New Jersey
The USS New Jersey is an Iowa-class battleship. The second in the United States Navy to be named after the U.S. State of New Jersey, she was often called “Big J.” This museum ship saw active duty during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam and throughout the 1980s.
Anchored along the New Jersey side of the Delaware River just across from Philadelphia, the Battleship New Jersey is a popular area attraction. But, as you might guess, it attracts many visitors from the “City of Brotherly Love” across the river.
Tours of the battleship are interactive, so all guests, regardless of age and interests, enjoy themselves as they navigate its decks. This means you’ll be going up and down ladders, and maneuvering through tight spaces in passageways, just as the crew of the USS New Jersey once did.
Corpus Christi, TX
The USS Lexington is an Essex-class aircraft carrier built during World War II. It’s the fifth U.S. Navy ship to bear the name of the Revolutionary War Battle of Lexington.
The Lexington was commissioned in 1943. During World War II, she set more records in naval aviation than any other carriers in her class. In addition, before this museum ship was decommissioned in 1991, she was the oldest working aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy.
Lexington participated in nearly every major operation in the Pacific Theater in World War II and spent 21 months in combat. Her air groups destroyed 372 enemy aircraft in the air and more than 475 on the ground. She also sank or destroyed 900,000 tons of enemy cargo. The ship’s guns shot down 15 planes and assisted in downing five more.
Incredibly, the Japanese reported Lexington sunk at least four times. Each time, however, she returned to fight another battle. Tokyo Rose, the leading Japanese propagandist, nicknamed her “The Blue Ghost.” It remains a tribute to the ship, crew, and air groups that served aboard her.
New York, New York
The USS Intrepid, one of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II, was known as The Fighting “I.” She was also the fourth U.S. Navy ship to bear the name.
Commissioned in August 1943, the carrier participated in several Pacific Theater of Operations campaigns, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
She was decommissioned shortly after the end of the war. But later, she was modernized and recommissioned in the early 1950s as an attack carrier. Later in her history, however, she eventually became an antisubmarine carrier. She participated in the Vietnam War in her second career but primarily served in the Atlantic.
In addition, Intrepid was also the recovery ship for a Mercury and a Gemini space mission. After decommissioning in the 1970s, the ship reopened in 1982 as the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
On its flight deck on the West Side of Manhattan, you’ll find more than 30 vintage aircraft, including two 1950s-era helicopters, and a pair of Soviet-designed MiG fighters, among other planes. There’s also a British Airways Concorde on the adjacent pier.
Note: Obviously we can’t provide information on all the ship museums in the USA. If you have information on other ships that you’d like to share with the many thousands of others who have read this article, please leave a comment for all of us below.
Jim Ferri, Editor