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Connecticut's Captivating Coast

Colonial History and Seafaring Charm Along Connecticut's Southeast Shore

All aboooooard! - the conductor's voice boomed. Then as if to hurry us along, there was a resounding Whuuff! of steam from the engine at the head of the train. Climbing into the long, black cars, Nancy and I took our seats. Seconds later there was a lurch, and the lush Connecticut countryside began drifting past our window. The door to the car opened and a smiling conductor in black cap and stiff-collared jacket stepped in and began moving down the isle, punching tickets. For a moment, I felt myself slide back in time back to the nineteen-thirties, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was President, and steam trains were the power that moved the nation.

The train was the vintage Essex Steam Train, and its passengers were on a journey through time along the green and beautiful Connecticut River Valley. But for all its romance, the Essex Steam Train is just one of the many delightful surprises awaiting visitors who explore Connecticut's captivating southeast coast.

Driving through History

Connecticut's southeast coast is an oasis of beauty and history that has two distinctly different flavors. Inland along the Connecticut River Valley, the rolling woodlands and ancient New England farmland has a timeless, pastoral feel. But along the coast lie weathered, salty towns that trace their history and culture back two centuries or more, to the days when Connecticut's sleek windjammers plied the seas of the world with trade, and the whaling fleets of Stonington and Noank fed the thirsty oil lamps of early industrial New England.

The broad waters of the Connecticut River were the highway between the two worlds, allowing the farm produce and timber from the interior to be transported easily to the shipping centers of the coast. Amazingly, as industrialization swept over other parts of New England, progress blessedly bypassed this region, leaving the seaside villages rich in heritage and colonial charm, and the Connecticut River one the most pristine on the eastern seaboard.

A drive through the Connecticut River Valley serves up a scenic potpourri of old New England. Small country roads follow the valley, winding through dense hardwood forests furrowed here and there with small streams that tumble with frothy urgency toward the great river. The roads pass historic centuries old farms whose ancient fields are bounded by miles of hand laid stone walls and they lead to tiny villages like historic Chester, whose handful of colorful shops, and inviting flower-lined side streets make a wonderful excuse to get out and stretch your legs for a bit.

Sherlock Holmes on the River

Just beyond Chester, the tiny (9 car) Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, crosses the river and offers an adventure in living history. This is one of the oldest ferries in America, having continuously operated since 1769. The trip takes just a few minutes, but offers unforgettable views of the river, and an impressive glimpse of the romantic architectural fantasy that is Gillette Castle, perched high on the hill above the river.

From the 1880's until his retirement in 1921, Actor William Gillette thrilled theatre audiences worldwide with his electrifying portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to discover that his home was also designed to entertain, delight and mystify his guests.

Built between 1922 and 1927 at a cost of over 1 million dollars, the castle is a medieval fantasy complete with parapets, stone turrets and a central Great Room with a massive stone fireplace and vaulted ceilings. Gillette personally oversaw every facet of the design. Many of the castle's heavy oak inner doors have intricate hand-carved details that incorporate a hidden latch mechanism ' only those who know the secret can open them. The Castle's liquor cabinet is hidden behind a secret panel, and, like the doors, can only be opened by someone who knows the trick to releasing the hidden wooden lock. Gillette also had mirrors strategically placed so he could monitor parts of the house from the door of his bedroom, there was even one that allowed him to watch his guests trying in vain to open the liquor cabinet!

Today, the castle and its 184-acreu estate are operated as a state park. In addition to the castle, the park features a network of trails along the hillside that offer magnificent views of the Connecticut River flowing far below.

Where the Whalers once Docked

The salty flavor of America's seafaring past permeates the small boroughs of Connecticut's southeast coast. In Stonington, the stately homes of prosperous 18th and 19th century merchants and sea captains line the narrow streets. Stonington's historic district is maze of narrow streets that are a delight to explore on foot. On a bluff overlooking the shore is the Stonington Lighthouse, Connecticut's first government-operated light, built in 1832. Today, it houses a museum that welcomes visitors with exhibits on the history of lighthouses, the whaling industry and the harvesting of ice, which was a major winter occupation in many New England towns before the advent of electricity.

Seafaring charm also fills the small village of Mystic. Along Mystic's inner harbor, historic homes and moored boats cast their reflections in the tranquil water. The town's tiny drawbridge on the bustling main street is a local landmark, and at one end of the bridge,an ice-cream parlour is renowned for their home-made flavors. Down the street is the one and only Mystic Pizza, made famous in the 1988 movie of the same name, which launched actress Julia Robert's career.

Mystic is perhaps best known however, as the home of the world-famous Mystic Seaport Museum, America's largest Maritime Museum. Covering over 17 waterfront acres, the museum recreates a New England coastal village of the late eighteen hundreds, with all the sights and sounds of that busy era. Along the village waterfront, shops bustle with the activities of the barrelmaker, the boat builder printer and half a dozen other period businesses.

The museums biggest stars, however, are the two great, square-rigged ships permanently moored at the museum docks. The Joseph Conrad is a training ship built in 1882, and the lovely Charles W. Morgan is 105 foot whaling bark built in New Bedford in 1841. The ships can be toured, and both the ships and the docks are the stage for numerous lively demonstrations of traditional seafaring skills put on by the museum staff. The audience is encouraged to participate and it's easy to find yourself participating in any number of authentic seafaring activities ranging from rope-making to sail raising and chantey singing.

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This article continues, visiting the home of  Playwright Eugene O'Neill , the Florence Griswold Art Museum, The Groton Submarine Museum and the Coast Guard Academy.

Total word count: 1,563. Originally published by Farm Family America Magazine, (circ 410,000) in June, 1997

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