A Connecticut River Runs Through It

There are no soaring mountains or crashing waterfalls, but the Connecticut River Valley is
a scenic and pleasant place to explore the backroads and quaint villages of the
Constitution State.

 

 While the river actually cleaves the state in half — it’s said to
begin at a pond along the New Hampshire/Canada border and empties into Long Island Sound
some 410 miles south — the valley itself spreads wide along the estuary’s southern
section. In fact, the Nature Conservancy calls its tidelands one of the “last great
places.”

 

  We started our tour south of Middletown, where State Highway 154 — which skirts
along the banks of the river for much of its length — angles southeast from State Highway
9. Just north of the junction, on State Highway 9, is picturesque Seven Falls, where we
found a wonderful path beside a cascading stream. This is a lovely place to stop for a
picnic and to relax under the shade trees.

 

 Turning south on State Highway 154, we first
paused at Haddam Meadows State Park, a popular place for launching boats into the broad
Connecticut River, before continuing on to the quaint village of Haddam for a look at the
Thankful Arnold House. Built in 1794 on land purchased from the Wangunk tribe in the 1600s,
the most distinctive feature of this three-story house is the gambrel roof with its unusual
bell-shaped profile.

 

 Acquired in 1798 by newlyweds Joseph and Thankful Arnold, members of
the family continued to occupy it until 1962, when it was purchased by Isaac Arnold of
Houston, Texas, the great-great-grandson of Thankful and Joseph Arnold. The Haddam
Historical Society named it in honor of Thankful, a direct descendant of Priscilla Mullens
and John Alden of Mayflower fame, who occupied the house for more than 50 years.

 

  In the
rear of the house is a period herb and vegetable garden, where heirloom varieties of herbs,
flowers and vegetables are grown. The garden provides an insight into the eating habits of
the colonists who inhabited this area.

 

  Haddam also is home to the Sundial Gardens, a
colorful array of plants that encompasses a formal 17th century knot garden, an 18th
century garden, a topiary garden with fountain and an herb shop and tea room. Of special
interest is the knot garden, which originated in Persia and became popular in Europe and in
this country during the 18th century. A knot garden features plants (usually herb hedges),
that are trimmed to the same height and planted in such a way as to have no beginning or
end, creating a knot design.

 

  Be sure to stop in the tea room not only to sample some teas
from around the world, but to learn about the many uses of teas for culinary and medicinal
purposes. Sundial Gardens is included in the National Geographic Guide to America’s Public
Gardens.

 

 South of Haddam, from State Highway 154, is Chester. Once a major shipbuilding
town, it now attracts tourists to its antique and gift shops. From Chester, continue south
to Deep River, and look for the Stone House, where you can shop for locally manufactured
goods. Deep River also is where runaway slaves were sheltered after escaping through the
Underground Railroad.

 

  As you continue south to Essex, look for signs leading to the Valley
Railroad Company. By taking the combination land-and-water tour offered on the Essex Steam
Train and Riverboat, you can take a steam train north along the river to Deep River and
return on the Becky Thatcher, a sternwheeler, for a different view of the shoreline (a
combination ticket is a 2 1/2-hour ride). The 1920’s-era coal-fired steam train follows a
12-mile route that encompasses several coves and preserves inaccessible by dinghy,
including portions of the tidal wetlands popular for bird-watching. The area is home at
various times of the year to cormorants, swans, Greenland geese, blue heron, egrets,
red-winged blackbirds and, in winter months, migrating American Bald Eagles, golden eagles
and brown eagles.

 

 You’ll want to save some time for the historic town of Essex, another
shipbuilding center during the 18th and 19th centuries and oftentimes called “the
quintessential New England river town.” Beautiful shops and art galleries are among the
homes that once belonged to sea captains. At the end of Main Street is Steamboat Dock, site
of New England’s oldest continuously operating wharf (in service since 1640). It was a
stopping point for a turn-of-the-century steamboat service that ran between New York City
and Hartford. On the river’s edge, housed in a steamboat warehouse, is the Connecticut
River Museum, where changing exhibits celebrate the cultural and natural history of the
area and you can take an excursion out onto the river.

 

  From Essex, backtrack north on State
Highway 154. You’ll see a picturesque bridge that will take you across the river. (There is
a ferry that crosses the river east of Chester, but the weight capacity is three tons.) As
you cross the bridge, you’ll spy a splendid Victorian structure, which should be your next
stop. It is the home of the Goodspeed Opera House, located along the river’s edge at
Goodspeed Landing. Built in 1876 and saved from demolition in 1963, the historic theater is
open for tours and is the home of musical productions.

 

 From the opera house, follow the
signs to Gillette Castle, an imposing fieldstone structure, which was the home of the
multi-talented William Gillette. Although he was known as a builder, author and actor, his
most famous claim to fame was portraying Sherlock Holmes. Gillette designed the 24-room
castle (which is open for guided tours) to resemble estates along the Rhine River. Evidence
of his love of animals (he had 15 cats) and gadgets can be seen throughout the castle,
which he occupied from 1919 to 1937.

 

 After visiting the castle, you can stroll through
Gillette Castle State Park on tree-shaded trails. One in particular, known as the Tree
Walk, is a three-mile trail along the route of a narrow gauge railroad. Interpretive signs
along the route and around the lily pond identify trees, shrubs and ferns native to the
area.

 

 While the Connecticut River Valley is filled with historical treasures, many of its
avenues are typically narrow thoroughfares. The roads are RV accessible, but you probably
would find it easier to tour the small communities in your dinghy. Fortunately, the valley
also is home to a number of public and private campgrounds; go to ctrivervalley.com and
click on the “Outdoor Recreation” icon for an extensive list.

 

 It would be difficult to find
an area richer in scenery, culture and history than the lower Connecticut River Valley. The
river played an important role as the fledgling colonies fought their way into becoming an
independent nation — and maintains a strong link to the past.

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