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Looking forward to a visit that looks backward? Connecticut’s rich history is always on display just around the next turn in the road – and these forts, bridges, Victorian mansions and state parks are merely a taste of all that’s in store.
Civil War Remembrance
It was 150 years ago this summer that Grant’s Union forces pounded at rebel positions, the Siege of Petersburg began and Sherman took Atlanta. Although no battles were fought on Connecticut soil, the state’s role in the conflict was not insignificant. Many thousands from Connecticut served, over 1,100 were killed in action and another 3,000 perished from disease. Today, there are Civil War monuments in nearly every town – and some places have a real Civil War connection.
For many years before the emancipation of slaves and the outbreak of war, the Underground Railroad moved African-Americans from south to north, and to relative safety. With its concentration of abolitionists, Farmington was key stop for escapees and a number of local houses provided shelter. Contact the Farmington Historical Society for information on tours and other events.
When President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, legend has it that he said, “So you’re the little woman whose book started this great war.” Whether he actually said it or not, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave many Americans a vivid picture of slavery and in some sense may have helped set North against South. Her life and literary works are chronicled in Hartford’s Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, located in the house she lived in during the last 23 years of her life.
Once the war began, thousands of Union soldiers were recruited to and trained at New London’s Fort Trumbull. The fort, built between 1839 and 1852 on the site of two previous installations, has a rich history spanning almost all of America’s story. This year, a Civil War Encampment of the 14th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry will be re-enacted at Fort Trumbull on June 6.
A taste of Connecticut’s role in the Civil War can be found at the New England Civil War Museum in Rockville. Located inside a former Grand Army of the Republic Hall, the museum houses the collections of several Connecticut Civil War veterans.
In the years following the war, many memorials, including well over 100 in Connecticut, were erected in the memory of those who had fallen. The state’s first memorial, and possibly the nation’s, is Soldiers Monument in Kensington, dedicated 150 years ago last July 28, and soon followed by Bristol, North Branford, Cheshire and Northfield. Among the most notable is the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Hartford, the first permanent triumphal arch in America. A highlight is a classical frieze that wraps around the top of the arch – the north side tells the story of war and the south the story of peace. Other prominent memorials are the dramatic Soldiers and Sailors Monument, located high on East Rock in New Haven, and George E. Bissell’s magnificent Soldiers’ Monument, just off the green in Waterbury.
Park It Here
Can state parks truly be a part of Connecticut’s history and heritage? They can when they turn 100 years old – a celebration that carries into this summer. The first park was established in 1913 with the purchase of what is now known as Sheffield Island State Park on Long Island Sound in Westport. Once the precedent had been set and residents saw the benefits of public land ownership, Connecticut’s park system began growing rapidly. Today there are more than 100 parks and forests in the system, each with unique features for residents and visitors alike. Here are some examples.
Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden. As you take in the views from the stone tower at the top, consider you are located on the hip of what for all the world looks like a . . . sleeping giant. The park offers an impressive network of hiking trails, ranging from expert to nearly child-proof.
Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill. A state park located where dinosaurs once roamed the earth? Really? Here you’ll find the fossilized footprints of the giant lizards that crisscrossed the Connecticut River Valley 200 million years ago. Kids can make plaster-of-Paris casts of actual dino footprints to take home.
Gillette Castle State Park, East Haddam. The centerpiece of this magnificent location high above the Connecticut River is a most unusual house built by 19th-century actor William Gillette (known chiefly for his state role as Sherlock Holmes). His “castle” is well worth touring, but be sure to bring a picnic to enjoy on the extensive grounds.
Kent Falls State Park, Kent. One of the best hikes in Connecticut runs along this 250-foot waterfall, plunging a quarter-mile down through a thick forest.
Harkness Memorial State Park, Waterford. You can have your Gatsby moment at Eolia, once the lavish summer home of the Harkness family, whose fortune was made with Standard Oil. Visitors here will find gardens and sweeping lawns on 230 acres, with lots of frontage right on Long Island Sound.
Talcott Mountain State Park, Simsbury. As you take in the view from Heublein Tower, be sure to take in the tower itself, in its day one of the most unusual and spectacular summer houses in Connecticut. Views from the 165-foot tower stretch from Mt. Tom in Massachusetts to Sleeping Giant to the south.
Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison. At over 2 miles in length, this is Connecticut’s longest beach, and its most-attended state park. There are campsites, a nature center, a network of trails and, oh yes, swimming in Long Island Sound.
The Victorian Era remains visible everywhere in Connecticut, in its churches, public buildings and cemeteries, but perhaps nowhere as much as in its private houses. Go to the center of any of the state’s 169 cities and towns, and you’ll see them - sometimes solo, sometimes lined up as if in formation - these great “painted ladies” of a bygone era, a time encapsulated by the 1819-1901 reign of England’s Queen Victoria. The great news is that some of Connecticut’s most spectacular Victorian houses have been saved as museums and are these days open for your inspection, offering not only visual treats but also the story of the house and those who lived there. Here are a few examples, listed by architectural subsets:
Greek Revival. The Smith-Harris House Museum in Niantic is an 1845 farmhouse saved from the wrecker’s ball and brought back to life as a local museum. Especially notable is an extensive front-hall mural depicting the town of East Lyme.
Gothic Revival. Roseland Cottage in Woodstock was built as a summer retreat in 1846 by Henry and Lucy Bowen, he a local native who had made it in New York. The estate, which once hosted presidents and other luminaries, consists of the distinctive rose-colored house as well as elaborate gardens, and ice house, aviary, carriage barn and the nation’s oldest indoor bowling alley.
Second Empire Style. Norwalk’s spectacular Lockwood-Mathews Mansion was built 1864-68 by railroad baron and financier LeGrand Lockwood, who suffered financial setbacks during its construction died not long after it was completed. It was taken over by the Mathews family and eventually passed over to the town, which destroyed many of the outbuildings before finally being persuaded to save the main house.
Victorian Gothic. Mark Twain House in Hartford is probably Connecticut’s best known single residence, and today it’s a fitting museum to the greatly beloved American writer. Twain and his family moved into the house in 1874 (“It is a home,” he wrote at the time, “& the word never had so much meaning before.”) and he composed some of his best-known works there.
Queen Anne. The Hotchkiss-Fyler House Museum in Torrington resides in an 1897 gem built by a local business family. It is especially notable today for its magnificent millwork and interior detailing, such as stenciling, murals and ornamental plaster ceilings. The interior remains as it was in 1956, when the last family member moved out.
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 “Windham Fog Fight (or Flight)” 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 green 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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