Looking forward to a visit that looks backward? Connecticut’s rich history is always on display – these forts, bridges and town greens are merely a taste of what we have in store.
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.
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 “Windom Frog Fight (or Fright)” 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 (opens June 1st), an 1846 Gothic summer cottage built by Henry C. Bowen and open today as a fascinating local attraction.
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