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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Gillette Castle State Park - Haddam, CT




Gillette Castle just sort of surprises you. You are in the quiet town of East Haddam in Connecticut, strolling along the Connecticut River, and boom, this castley fortress looking structure just jets out along the cliffside. It's a private residence turned state park (1943) and it's everything whimsical and confusing - railroad, tunnel, and castle included. Grab the kids and the dogs and head to East Haddam for a fun family-friendly adventure along the Connecticut River. 





About the Castle and Grounds 

The 184-acre property once belonged to William Hooker Gillette (noted actor, director, and playwright, most famous for his portrayal of "Sherlock Holmes"). William Gillette was a Connectiut native, born in Hartford in 1893.  In his 70's, Gillette decided to retire and turned this property into his little passion project - fully equipped with a castle and private railroad.  The 14,000 square foot 24 room mansion with various balconies and over 47 unique doors and locks, looks like a medieval castle.  The castle is known for it's quirky features like a disappearing bar and mirrors that let Gillette see into various rooms. 




Built of local fieldstone supported by a steel framework, it took twenty men five years (1914-1919), to complete the main structure. During a normal year (read, non-COVID year), you can go inside the castle and tour the various rooms. If you go during the holiday season, you can even catch the mansion all decked out.  The mansion sits along the cliffside and the beautifully wooded property where various trails snake through the woodlands. You may also notice a vegetable cellar, the former private railroad station, Gillette's own "Grand Central Station" (now a picnic area) and a goldfish pond. You can also explore the lesser-known 75-foot tunnel that makes its way through a hillside on the eastern part of the park.  Save a copy of this map to find the tunnel when you go. 

Historic Photos of Gillette Castle 
from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and Connecticut State Library Link

Historic Photos of Gillette with his train 
from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and Connecticut State Library Link


Railroad

William Gillette grew up with a boyhood love for trains that turned into an adult passion project.  The property is dotted with trails that follow over trestle and through tunnels and you can even see signs for the actor's "miniature railroad".  A 3-mile long narrow-gauge (18") railroad in which he called the “Seventh Sister Railroad” (Seven Sisters is the local name for the seven hills that rise above the Connecticut River in this area) traversed the park with the sole purpose of entertaining guests. 



The railroad included electric- and steam-powered locomotives, two Pullman cars, and an observation car. In the 1940s the tracks and train engines were sold to Lake Compounce in Bristol and were then donated back in the 1990s.  You can see the restored passenger car on display at the castle’s visitor center.  During the 1920s and 1930s, this little railroad transported famous folks like Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Calvin Coolidge throughout the park. This short little clip gives you a little taste of what the railroad looked like during Gillette's time. The tracks were removed from the property and hiking trails now follow the 3-mile former railroad through the property. 


Why Go 

This time of year, it's the perfect place to get outside and stretch your legs.  You won't find any crazy hiking or intense trails, but instead, there is a network of family-friendly trails that traverses the property.  You will follow the Connecticut River, see the castle grounds, and enjoy a scenic trail in your typical wooded Connecticut trails.  While we couldn't see the inside due to COVID, we decided on a simple loop around the park and we enjoyed all the holiday touches and wreaths and ribbons decorating the castle grounds.  When November/December strikes and the days are short and the scenery a little brown, this is a great place to take the kids and enjoy some time outside. In the warmer months, you can also turn this into the ultimate kiddo adventure by taking the steam train and ferry to the castle (all the details below in the "getting here" section). 

  

What To Do

  • Stop in the visitors' center and museum (closed 2020) 
  • Enjoy the hiking trails (dog and kid-friendly)
  • Check out the tunnel and other landmarks around the property
  • Pack a picnic to enjoy in the different picnic areas
  • Hiking/Walking/Property Map



Visiting Hours 

The grounds of Gillette Castle State Park are open from 8 a.m. to sunset year-round. 
The Castle is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and then Friday through Sunday through Columbus Day weekend. 

Touring the castle

**CLOSED 2020 due to COVID** During a normal year, you can tour the inside of the castle. Tours are self-guided, but there are staff members in each room to give you some information and history on the home. Interior tour fees are $6 for adults; $2 age 6-12, free for children ages 5 & under. The castle is open Saturdays and Sundays from November 29 through December 21

Getting Here: Car - Train - Ferry 

CAR:  Year Round  67 River Rd. East Haddam, CT 06423 (there is a large parking area at the castle)
FERRY: Seasonal You can also take the Chester/Haddam ferry nearly right to the castle property.  A walking trail will take you up to the castle from the ferry. 
STEAM TRAIN/FERRY:  Seasonal You can also take the Essex Steam Train to the ferry which is a fun way to experience the castle with kids.  Plan and purchase this adventure ahead of time as space is limited. 

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