Connecticut is a canvas for many histories, each still alive and vibrant in its own way. Come walk through the stories of the American Revolution and Civil War, the African-American experience, strong women in Connecticut, and through the fortifications and town greens that help tell America’s story.
The African-American Story
From Connecticut’s Colonial beginnings to the present day, African-Americans have had a significant role in the state’s rich history. The legendary Amistad trial was held in New London, abolitionists across Connecticut provided refuge along the Underground Railroad, and the state’s tradition of tolerance made it a comfortable home for African-American luminaries from Paul Robeson to Marian Anderson to Jackie Robinson. For a comprehensive list of sites that relate to the African-American experience, take a look at the excellent Freedom Trail compilation. Meanwhile, here are a few highlights to consider for your summer travels.
The Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury pays tribute to the moral courage she showed in providing private education for your African-American women during the 1830s despite fierce local opposition. As young black students came from as far away as Boston, New York and Philadelphia, Miss Crandall faced three court trials and even spent a night in jail in defense of her beliefs. She prevailed and helped change attitudes in the process.
The Amistad Center of Art & Culture is tucked inside Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and its purpose is to celebrate art and culture influenced by people of African descent. The Center’s collection holds more than 7,000 works of art, artifacts and cultural objects, and exhibitions are displayed in newly restored galleries. Be sure to see “This Is My Story, This Is My Song: Writers, Musicians and the Black Freedom Struggle.”
The Underground Railroad, which carried enslaved African-Americans from bondage in the South to freedom in the North, ran all through Connecticut. Today, many of the stops and landmarks along the way are open to public viewing – you can find a list of sites here and a map here.
As for the Amistad itself, it’s spending the summer in New London under the auspices of the New London Maritime Society/Customs House Museum. The Mystic-built ship is a replica of the Cuban schooner that sailed from Havana in 1839 carrying 52 enslaved Africans. It was intercepted by the U.S. Revenue Service (the forerunner to the Coast Guard) in August 1839 and brought to New London's Custom House, eventually resulting in the freedom of the Africans who had been aboard.
Civil War Remembrance
One hundred fifty years ago this summer the Civil War had ended but its enormous toll (including the assassination of President Lincoln in April) was still being counted up. Although no battles had been 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, which has very limited visiting opportunities, 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 151 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.
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-century 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.
Park It Here
Can state parks truly be a part of Connecticut’s history and heritage? They can when they are more than a century old. 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.
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.
It was 240 years ago this summer, in 1775, that the Battle of Bunker Hill occurred and George Washington took over command of the Continental Army. Feelings were running high in Connecticut, too, which would later become known to Gen. Washington and other leaders as the Revolution’s “Provision State.” You can recall those remarkable days of long ago at any or all of the Connecticut revolutionary sites.
In September 1781, on the site of Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park in Groton, British troops under the guidance of Benedict Arnold raided and burned New London in the Battle of Groton Heights. Arnold was a traitor, and he gave the British enough secrets about the Americans’ defenses so they were able to prevail after a pitched battle. Prior to the battle, the fort defended the harbor (along with Fort Trumbull on the opposite side) and allowed New London the security it needed to become a major supply center for the Continental Army. Today the site here includes the restore earthwork battery, cannons, monuments and memorials.
To this day, the small, rural town of Lebanon seems a little amazed that it “played an unexpectedly important role in the American Revolution.” But it did, and visitors there today will still find some of the flavor of life during that far-off time. Begin your visit at the Lebanon Historical Society Museum and Visitor Center, then on to the Governor Trumbull House (at first, he was the only Colonial governor to support the independence movement) and the Revolutionary War Office, where the Revolutionary Council of Safety held more than 1,000 meetings during the war, and where Gens. Washington, Knox, Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette were visitors.
George Washington was a frequent visitor to Old Wethersfield, as well, where many of the attractions predate the Revolution. The Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum consists of three houses – the Joseph Webb House served as Washington’s headquarters in May 1781 and the Silas Deane House was built for America’s Revolutionary War diplomat to France.
Before Benedict Arnold was a turncoat, he was an inspirational leader, never more so than during the Battle of Ridgefield in April 1777. Here, outmanned Colonial forces engaged British troops three separate times as the latter attempted to return to the coast after burning a supply depot in Danbury. Arnold was one of the leaders of the revolutionary side and dispatched with a British soldier while trapped beneath his fallen horse. The story of the battle can be found at the Keeler Tavern Museum, where a cannonball from that day remains lodged in the side of the building.
Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding is located on the site chosen by Major General Israel Putnam as the encampment for his troops during the winter of 1778/79. Today, the park holds the remains of the encampment, reconstructed log buildings and a museum, where large display panels tell the story of the war in general, Connecticut’s role in it and the events that took place during Putnam’s winter encampment.
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. 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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