Riding the Rails and the River in Connecticut

November 08, 2013

Our train
When last we left our intrepid travelers, they were luxuriating at the Bee and Thistle Inn…

After my husband pried my fingers off the door to the inn (I would gladly have stayed in our cozy room at least one more night), we boarded the Essex Steam Train for a short ride through the woods along the Connecticut River, followed by a riverboat trip up the river itself. The day was cold and windy, but we braved the top deck to watch the river banks slide by, a few houses tucked in here and there, and the scarlet and yellow trees that seemed to grow right out of the rock in places.

As we floated by, what looked like a ruined castle loomed up on the hill above us. Our trip narrator identified it as Gillette Castle.

Gillette Castle, which is part of Gillette Castle State Park, was the property of actor William Gillette, whose adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work and on-stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes helped define the role. (He played Holmes more than 1,300 times over 30 years, and coined the phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow” which was later changed to Holmes’ most famous line, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” according to Wikipedia.) Gillette, who by all accounts was a clever and eccentric man, personally designed the 24-room house and its contents, including 47 intricate and unique door latches, no two of which are alike. The structurally sound home, build of fieldstone with a  steel framework, was designed to look like the ruins of castle you might see along the Rhine in Germany. It’s open to the public from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend, but we were told that even without being able to enter the house, it would be worthwhile to walk around it, and take in the grounds and river views  After lunch, we drove up there and explored a small portion of the park, which was free to enter. It would be a marvelous place to sketch on a less windy and cold day.

The view from Gillette Castle

See the dragon's head?

When Gillette died, he had no one to leave his estate to and was concerned with what would happen to this property, putting specific instructions in his will to guarantee the property would not fall into the hands “of some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” In 1943, the Connecticut government purchased the property, renamed the home Gillette’s Castle and the 184-acre estate became Gillette Castle State Park. In 1986, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Next and final stop: Boston, where we were forced to hide our resentment of the Boston Red Sox from rabid fans (Boston beat our home team, the Tampa Bay Rays, in the playoffs) and we were lucky to find a hotel room we could afford—the last game of the World Series was played the day we flew home.

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