Connecticut Calm (Waters)

I’m generally anxious around this time of year, approaching the end of the semester, but this year I am particularly so: I seem to be uneasy in general and in Salem in particular. The nice weather has kicked off the tourist season earlier than ever, or maybe it never ended? This means large tour groups just outside my house as late as 10:00 at night, with guides speaking about the ancient “ankle breaker” stones along the sidewalk that my neighbors and I installed in the last decade or so. Run, run, to the back of the house, I tell myself, so I don’t have to hear any more, but sometimes I just don’t want to get off the couch—and one guy is so loud I can even hear him way out back. A change of scenery (and perspective) was definitely needed, so for the long Patriots Day weekend my husband and I took off for one of the prettiest towns in Connecticut (a state with many pretty towns): Essex, near the mouth of the Connecticut River. We stayed at the old Griswold Inn, in one of its newer suites, and ate and drank and looked at old houses and the river. It was very foggy, but there were daffodils everywhere, and I do feel a bit cheerier now that I’m back home (or in Salem).

Welcome to Essex, Connecticut!

I started decompressing as soon as we got on one of my favorite Connecticut small roads: Route 169. Well, before, really: right over the state line in Thompson, which has a great common surrounded by wonderful houses (including the resurrected Gothic Revival long neglected by the famous interior designer Mario Buatta). Route 169 leads you through Woodstock, and by Roseland Cottage, to Canterbury, where the amazing Prudence Crandall opened her school for African-American girls (what an amazing woman! I need to know much more about her), to Norwich, where we turned south and drove by the decaying buildings of the long-abandoned Norwich State Hospital which are such a sharp contrast to the shiny Mohegan Sun casino across the river.

The road to Essex: Thompson houses, Roseland Cottage (which I visited just last summer), Prudence Crandall’s school in Canterbury, and one of the derelict buildings of the former Norwich State Hospital (with a glimpse of Mohegan Sun across the river).

I think my husband thinks that Essex is a bit “Truman Show-esque” but it was just what I needed:  a lovely town with clean sidewalks that is proud of its history rather than seeking to sell it 24/7. The houses are pretty perfect, but they are not mansions. It’s really all about watercraft in Essex: this was a rather quiet time but its harbor will be full to brimming in a month or so. Essex built a famous warship for the Revolution named the Oliver Cromwell (which was renamed the Restoration when it was captured by the British in 1779!), it endured the burning of 27 of its privateering ships when the British raided the harbor in April of 1814, the storied schooner yacht Dauntless ended her career on the Essex waterfront at the turn of the last century, and famous steamships line the walls of the Griswold Inn. The wonderful Connecticut River Museum, housed in an old steamship warehouse, explores the layers of local maritime history through art, artifacts and narratives in such an engaging way that I really felt the connection of water to land over history and now I’m absolutely inspired to take another New England road trip: a longer one, up the entire length of the River from Saybrook to Canada.

An array of Essex houses (birdhouses are big in this town too); the Onrust, a replica of a Dutch colonial ship, is moored in front of the Connecticut River Museum (my husband John is looking for me, I think); the Turtle, a Revolutionary-era submarine, which was built just up the River. I love the caption of this c. 1860 painting of Captain and Mrs. Samuel L. Spencer: “Captain Spencer of Old Saybrook, shown with the most important females in his life: his wife and his ship. He was captain of Daniel Webster of the London Line of packets for more than twenty years.” The Connecticut River Museum’s exhibition of Watercraft at Work made even BARGES interesting, and among the items I found my very favorite ship name of all time: of the schooner “Tansy Bitters”.

9 responses to “Connecticut Calm (Waters)

  • Nancy D

    Fabulous pictorial tour of Essex! And the myriad Daffodils and purple door just nailed it for me! 💜💛

  • stacey m ristuccia

    Is there not something that can be done about these tourist trotters and the electrified speakers? It’s obnoxious.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Again, I enjoyed reading about your jaunt to Essex CT, your stay at the Griswold Inn, and the lovely homes you captured in photos banked by daffodils, one of my favorite flowers.

    I think that exploring the Connecticut River from Saybrook to the Canadian border would great. Are you familiar with the RIVERS OF AMERICA SERIES? Described as “a landmark series of books on American rivers, for the most part written by literary figures rather than historians,” I read several a few years back, including the one on the Connecticut River when a young man in our family entered Deerfield Academy. It’s a whole new world out there.

    If space permits, I dug up another favorite poem from school days to celebrate spring…

    by William Wordsworth

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

    Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle on the milky way,
    They stretched in never-ending line
    Along the margin of a bay:
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

    The waves beside them danced, but they
    Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
    A poet could not be but gay,
    In such a jocund company:
    I gazed’and gazed’but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought:

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

  • Eilene Lyon

    These photos of Essex just have me salivating for some east coast history jaunts!
    Here’s a link to my post about my distant cousin, Prudence Crandall. I first learned of her at a roadside historical marker in Elk Falls, Kansas, where she died.

  • Brian Bixby

    If you do that river run, note that the river valley from Hartford upstream was a fertile recruiting ground for the Shakers, which is why two Shaker villages, both in Enfield (but one is in Conn., the other in N.H.) are nearby. Alas, the Conn. village is a poor choice to visit, for it’s now a prison, but the New Hampshire village is partly a museum. A bit odd architecturally, because a Catholic monastic order owned it for a while and built a chapel in the middle of it. But if you visit, climb up the hill on the other side and get a gorgeous view of the village and the lake while checking out the location where the Shakers held their spiritual gatherings in the early 1840s.

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