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History knows no season, nor will your travels as you head back in time to immerse yourself in Connecticut’s glorious industrial past, its military installations, its crusading women or even its bridges and town greens. As you travel back and learn, you’ll find that Connecticut’s story is really a lesson in American history as well.
For about 100 years, beginning in the 1840s, Connecticut was a manufacturing juggernaut. In almost every corner of the state, in large factories and small, people were making things and the rest of the world was buying them. Today, you can find the old manufacturing buildings in almost every Connecticut town - some of the old brick factories have been abandoned, but others have found new life as retail centers, residential complexes or even museums. And if you want to revisit the era, Connecticut has some places where you can do that, too:
New Britain is known as The Hardware City for its manufacturing prowess, and much of its input can be found at The New Britain Industrial Museum. Here, the collection includes local products from the past and present. You’ll find everything from pistols to toasters on display, and products from Stanley Works, Fafnir Bearing and other local luminaries.
Connecticut enjoys a spectacular history as a maker of clocks and watches. Early inventors and innovators such as Eli Terry and Seth Thomas lived here, but the state was also the early home of the Mickey Mouse watch. Visitors can get a good taste of the history of marking time at the Timexpo Museum in Waterbury, the city that was home base for the Waterbury Watch Co., which became U.S. Time, which today is known as Timex. While there, you might consider the short trip across town to the Mattatuck Museum, where the stunning local history exhibit traces, among other things, the story of manufacturing might in the city and region.
Time is also the be-all and end-all at the American Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol. Here, you’ll find over 1,500 timepieces on display, as well as the compelling story of how Eli Terry and others spurred the industry in America, and especially in western Connecticut. Be sure to be on hand at the top of the hour, when many of the clocks begin chiming. If you’re in Bristol, you won’t be far away from Terryville, home to the Lock Museum of America. The lock-centric collection includes locks made in Connecticut, but also others dating back to the early 1500s and sturdy, intricate locks from banks and prisons.
The history of Manchester is intertwined with the history of the Cheney Brothers silk mills, and much of that story is accessible today through the Manchester Historical Society and its guide to the Cheney mills, mansions, churches, halls and housing built for mill employees and still standing in town. The Manchester History Center and the Old Manchester Museum both house collections and artifacts relating in great part to the city’s glowing industrial era.
Textiles were the thing in eastern Connecticut, and Willimantic’s Mill Museum of Connecticut is a place that “preserves and interprets the history of textiles, the textile arts and the textiles industry.” Here, the industry’s fascinating history is combined with special exhibits and programs to make a well-timed visit very worthwhile.
In Connecticut, it’s not hard to explore the stories of women from history who were first (Ella Grasso was the nation’s first female governor elected in her own right), best (Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars for Best Actress) or extraordinarily influential (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin fired up public sentiment for a war over slavery) in the lives they led. Today, some of Connecticut’s best-known travel destinations have a woman’s story at their center. You can find these and more by visiting the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center features Stowe’s life story and her literary works, and it colorfully illuminates her 19th-centure world in Hartford. The Stowe Center is part of the Nook Farm complex, home to Stowe and her influential family, including many strong, successful women (not to mention neighbor Mark Twain). The Center is home to regular programs that connect issues of the past to modern day problems of gender equality.
The Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington is located in a house designed for her parents by architect Theodate Pope Riddle, one of the first female architects in the country. Riddle and her parents toured Europe together, where they picked up the impressive collection of Impressionist art that is now displayed throughout the museum. The Hill-Stead also boasts a restored sunken garden.
The Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury celebrates the life and work of this educator of young women, who in 1832 admitted Sarah Harris, an African American girl, into her academy. She faced down the objections of townspeople and a Connecticut law that made her school illegal, and fought her arrest and conviction until she was acquitted. The museum’s exhibits and period rooms allow visitors to explore Crandall’s work to educate young women of color.
Florence Griswold helped cultivate American Impressionism by hosting painters in her home in Old Lyme, turning the little town into a thriving artists’ colony in the late-19th century. Today, the Florence Griswold Museum, housed in Griswold’s former home, presents an outstanding collection of American Impressionist Art and preserves Griswold’s legacy as a patron of the arts.
Similarly, in the 1890s, Josephine Holley and her daughter Constant ran a boarding house for writers and Impressionist artists and fostered an artist colony in the village of Cos Cob. John Twachtman and Theodore Robinson were among the painters attracted to the site, now known as the Bush-Holley House. However, Holley was not the first remarkable woman to occupy the home. During the Revolutionary War, while her husband was imprisoned, Sarah Bush defended her house and family against attack. Both women’s stories are interpreted here.
During the United States’ long history of conflict, Connecticut’s coastline has always made it vulnerable to enemy attack. From the very first settlement here, building a fort was always the very first order of business. Today, some of these fortifications, or at least their strategic positions, still survive. Visit them and you will get some sense of life – and threats to life – in those early days.
Benedict Arnold forever stamped in legacy as a traitor when he led a British raid on Fort Griswold in Groton in 1781. The British captured the fort and massacred 88 of the 165 defenders stationed there. Today, the remnants of the fort remain, along with other period structures related to the battle. The site is now a state park offering some amenities, such as picnic tables.
New Haven’s early commercial interests and its position on Long Island Sound meant it was a potential target for enemy raids. Black Rock Fort (Revolutionary War) and Fort Nathan Hale (Civil War) were put in place to repel invaders and give the locals a sense of security. Both forts occupied roughly the same space on the east shore of New Haven Harbor. In recent years, they have been reconstructed with a drawbridge, moat, ramparts, powder magazines and a “bombproof” bunker.
One of Connecticut’s most strategic positions from its very earliest days was the community of Saybrook (now Old Saybrook) located at the mouth of the Connecticut River. A good taste of those days can be found at Fort Saybrook Monument Park, whose 17 acres include the site of the original fortification and storyboards depicting the history of the Saybrook Colony.
The Civil War brought fears along the Connecticut coast that it was open to raids and attacks from the Confederate Navy. Fort Trumbull was built on 16 acres along the banks of the Thames River in New London. Today, the site has been restored as a state park, including a visitor center and two floors of theaters and interactive exhibits. Consider visiting it in tandem with the nearby Fort Griswold (see above).
The Native Americans had forts, too, and one of them, Fort Shantok, in Montville, has been declared a National Historic Landmark. Fort Shantok was used as a strategic location by the Mohegans, under the leadership of Uncas, in holding off the aggressive Narragansetts in 1635. A monument at the site pays tribute to Uncas and memorializes the battle.
Finally, if it’s a “fortress” rather than a fort you’re looking for, head to the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, where a magnificent Boeing B-29A “Superfortress” awaits your appraising eye. The four-engined, propeller-driven heavy bomber was designed by Boeing for long distance and high altitude operations during World War II. It was first flown in 1942 and was the most advanced bomber of its era. If you read Unbroken and wondered why this plane caused such a sensation when it first took to the skies, you can get an idea by seeing it here.
With its long history and many rivers and streams, Connecticut has always found a challenge in getting from one side of the water to the other. First came the ferries – and if you’re interested in taking one of the original routes, you can find the info here. But soon after the ferries came the bridges, and they kept on coming until all the rivers were adequately crossed. Today, Connecticut contains a broad array of bridges, many of them unique for their history or design. Here’s a tour of some of the most interesting.
We’ll start with perhaps the most famous, the West Cornwall Covered Bridge, spanning the Housatonic River on Route 128 from West Cornwall to Sharon. The bridge was designed by Ithiel Town and has been in continuous service since 1864 despite the occasional fire and flood. Today, its red-painted good looks make it one of Connecticut’s picture postcard sites. There are shops and restaurants to explore on the West Cornwall side as well.
One of Connecticut’s great bridges, Bulkeley Bridge, is largely unrecognized because it is so hard to see from most vantage points. The bridge spans the Connecticut River between Hartford and East Hartford and traffic from Routes 6, 44 and I-84 run across it. But if you go down below by the side of the river, you’ll find the last monumental stone bridge ever to be built (1903-08). With its nine arches and 100,000 cubic yards of pink and gray granite, it is also one of the most spectacular.
Have you ever seen a swing bridge? The East Haddam Bridge over the Connecticut River in the gorgeous mid-river valley, was built in 1913 in three spans, one of which can swing out to accommodate river traffic. Route 82 runs across the span from Haddam to East Haddam, and it will take you to many features in the area, including the Goodspeed Opera House and Gillette Castle.
Connecticut bridges feature all sorts of ornamentation, but nothing else is quite like The Frog Bridge in Willimantic. Also known as the Thread City Crossing, the bridge spans the Willimantic River and carries traffic along Routes 66 and 32. But it’s the giant frogs sitting atop giant spools of thread that will stop you dead in your tracks. The frogs are a nod to the area’s legendary “Battle of the Frogs” from 1754, the thread from the proud local heritage of textiles.
The Mystic River Bascule Bridge is one of Connecticut’s most famous and most observed, largely because it opens wide for boat traffic about 2,200 times a year and is located near the heart of one of the state’s most active tourist areas. Many visitors have grabbed an ice cream from a Main Street shop and gone up to wait for the drawbridge to open and let the traffic (mostly sailboats) through.
Finally, it is one of Connecticut’s great pleasures to travel along the Merritt Parkway in the southwestern region of the state and observe the bridges along the way. The parkway (aka Route 15) was built in the 1930s and was meant to be a beautiful, natural retreat away from the heavy traffic of U.S. Route 1. The bridges were meant to follow suit, and with their imaginative designs, symbols and materials, they do. Drive up early some Sunday morning and you’ll think you’ve retreated back to an earlier day.
Getting the Green Light
Visiting classic town greens is a good way to see small-town Connecticut – the grassy rectangles were where most of the towns got started and where the colonists built their first meeting houses. Visiting these greens is also a good way to construct a one-day tour once the foliage begins to leaf out in mid-spring. Today, many greens still hold onto their ancient roles as common ground, a place for music, holiday celebrations and other civic events. An invaluable guide to all 172 Connecticut town greens (some towns have more than one) can be found here.
Greens – West
Begin this tour by the New York border, in Sharon, where the green is 1.5 miles long and 12 rods wide, as originally laid out. This is largely a parklike expanse with one notable landmark, a 40-foot-high brick clock tower.
On to the green at Cornwall Hollow, where the life and death of Major Gen. John Sedgwick, a local native, is commemorated in monument and plaque. Killed by a sniper’s bullet at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864, Sedgwick was the highest ranking Union casualty in the Civil War.
The Warren Green is a very small plot with almost no adornments, sitting at the center of this modest rural Connecticut town. A special point of interest nearby is the Warren Congregational Church, architecturally one of the state’s best, prominent on a grassy hill.
Litchfield’s good-sized, sloping green is much celebrated ad photographed, as is the Congregational Church at its east end. One side of the green here is lined with shops and restaurants, and therefore a good place to stop for a bite to eat.
Both Bethlehem and Roxbury offer classic small-town greens. Bethlehem’s is a long triangular park, and Roxbury’s is home to a notable granite obelisk honoring local Revolutionary War hero Seth Warner.
The final stop on this nearly circular route is New Milford, where the green is central to a comparatively bustling downtown. The quarter-mile-long rectangle is home to many monuments and civic structures, including a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln, an Army tank and a bandstand.
Greens – East
The tour of town greens in eastern Connecticut begins in Colchester, where a simply elegant green space clearly serves as a town center. It even includes a baseball diamond along with the more typical flagpole, gazebo and war monuments.
Next, it’s on to neighboring Lebanon, where the enormous green (some of it actually kept as pasture) dominates the center of town and offers a number of historic points of interest. Revolutionary War-era buildings include a War Office, visited by many generals, including George Washington, and the Governor Jonathan Trumbull House, home to the only colonial governor who openly supported the war effort.
The Scotland Green houses an octagonal bandstand and several war memorials, and, a little further on, in Canterbury, the rural aspect of the green is typical of this part of Connecticut, where the feel of old New England is not hard to find.
Continue your tour by taking a look at the modest Eastford Green in one of Connecticut’s smallest towns, and then finishing things off in Woodstock, where the green is nearly five acres bi and includes many lovely views and points of interest. Right on the green here is Roseland Cottage, an 1846 Gothic summer cottage built by Henry C. Bowen and open today as a fascinating local attraction.
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