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Exciting Essex Exudes Historic Charm


Nestled along the western shores of the Connecticut River, not far from where the river meshes with the Long Island Sound, Essex sits in silent testimony to its illustrious past.

 

Rated one of "The 100 Best Small Towns In America" and listed as one of the "top 40 places on earth" by the Nature Conservancy, this picture-perfect slice of early Americana lures visitors from around the globe, throughout the year.

Whether its popularity is due to the stately clapboard Colonial and Federal homes framed by the proverbial white picket fences; its picturesque winding streets, awash with lush foliage; an array of interesting curio and antique shops which inhabit Courtesy of the Griswold Inn. historic dwellings; the fine dining to be savored at the quaint Griswold Inn (known to locals simply as "the Gris"); or the serene harbor which lures sailors in sleek sailboats and snazzy yachts from faraway ports, Essex has carved a memorable niche for itself on the tourism map.

Settled in 1648, and a major port for more than 300 years, this scenic town in the Connecticut River Valley was an important player in the 1660s in the West Indies rum, sugar, molasses and tobacco circuit. Tales handed down through generations still tell of rumrunners scurrying back and forth across the darkened harbor as they unloaded their precious booty onto the shores of these secluded coves.

In 1733, shipbuilding began a boon for the tiny village, making Essex a byword to the maritime crowd around the world. Connecticut’s first warship, the 300-ton Oliver Cromwell, was built in 1776 for the Revolutionary War. Sadly, during the War of 1812, the British raided and burned 28 ships in this supposedly protected harbor, inflicting one of America’s greatest losses during that war.

Nowadays, the event is remembered with an annual spring parade, known by locals as "the Loser’s Parade". Led by the Sailing Masters of 1812 fife and drum corps, it has become a much-heralded event. In fact, residents of Essex - often viewed as stuffy and standoffish "yachty-types"- have a penchant for parades and boast more than a little sense of humor. Visitors have only to stop in on a frosty Saturday, close to Groundhog Day in February to find hundreds of townspeople of all ages, banging spoons on saucepans in raucous celebration as they follow a huge papier maché rodent, dubbed "Essex Ed", to a place of honor at the top of Main St.

In addition, The Connecticut Audubon Society will host an Eagle Festival with boat rides, demonstrations and eagle exhibits February 19 and 20.

While residents are determined to preserve the small town qualities, the secret is definitely out on the community’s charms and Essex has become a popular stop on the tourism trail, especially on weekends.

The Connecticut River Museum at 67 Main St. is located in the warehouse at the Essex Steamboat Dock. It is the site of the first wharf in 1656 and has permanent and rotating exhibits relating to history of the waterway, ships, navigational instruments, paintings and scale-model steamboats.

Painting by Richard Brooks, courtesy of the Connecticut River Museum. A steamer from the late 1800’s arriving at Steamboat Dock to unload passengers and cargo.

 

"Labor and Leisure – Small Craft on the Connecticut River" will be featured through February. The Museum is open Tuesday - Sunday from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults; children 6 - 11, $2; under 6, free. (www.connix.com/~crm)

The Pratt House allows a peek at life during early days. Located at 20 West Ave., it is the restored and furnished, circa 1732 home of William Pratt, one of the area’s original settlers. Hours vary, call ahead: (860) 767-0681.

The quaint Griswold Inn, established in 1776, was commandeered by the British during the War of 1812 and still serves a typical Hunt Breakfast, replete with the trimmings of a traditional English buffet, for $12.95 (children six and under, free) on Sundays, 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. The regular luncheon menu features a delectable salad with sautéed tenderloin tips and crumbled Gorgonzola laced with red wine vinaigrette, splashed over crisp spinach, and should not be missed. (www.griswoldinn.com)

According to Innkeeper, Doug Paul, only six families have owned the inn since it opened and many of their recipes date back 200 years. For an overnight stay, the "Gris" boasts 30 guest rooms scattered throughout neighboring historic dwellings, promising comfortable amenities (although there are no TVs), rich antiques and some scenic views.

Across the street, a series of shops provide tantalizing shopping ops: Olive Oyl’s dishes up gourmet deli items and a vast selection of cigars; Sweet Martha’s is the place for ice cream and chocolates; Hatitudes, sports exotic head gear; and the Glass Basket Christmas Barn has a delightful selection of Christmas collectibles throughout the year.

The Valley Railroad, a couple of miles from the center of town, began operating an as a tourist attraction in 1971, 100 years after the line’s original run. It offers a scenic 12-mile excursion through the Connecticut River Valley via restored steam trains, which connect to an optional river cruise. Combination train and boat trips last two and half hours. The fare for adults for train and boat: $15; children 3 - 11: $7.50. Train only, adults: $10; children: $5. Children under 3 ride free.

Getting There:

Essex is 35 miles from Hartford and is reached via I-95 or I-91. From either direction, take Route 9 to exit 3, then Route 153, which becomes Main Street.

For more information about Essex, visit the Connecticut River Valley and Shoreline Visitors’ Council website at http://www.cttourism.org/

Painting by Richard Brooks, courtesy of the Connecticut River Museum. A steamer from the late 1800’s arriving at Steamboat Dock to unload passengers and cargo.

"Labor and Leisure – Small Craft on the Connecticut River" will be featured through February. The Museum is open Tuesday - Sunday from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults; children 6 - 11, $2; under 6, free. (www.connix.com/~crm)

The Pratt House allows a peek at life during early days. Located at 20 West Ave., it is the restored and furnished, circa 1732 home of William Pratt, one of the area’s original settlers. Hours vary, call ahead: (860) 767-0681.

The quaint Griswold Inn, established in 1776, was commandeered by the British during the War of 1812 and still serves a typical Hunt Breakfast, replete with the trimmings of a traditional English buffet, for $12.95 (children six and under, free) on Sundays, 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. The regular luncheon menu features a delectable salad with sautéed tenderloin tips and crumbled Gorgonzola laced with red wine vinaigrette, splashed over crisp spinach, and should not be missed. (www.griswoldinn.com)

According to Innkeeper, Doug Paul, only six families have owned the inn since it opened and many of their recipes date back 200 years. For an overnight stay, the "Gris" boasts 30 guest rooms scattered throughout neighboring historic dwellings, promising comfortable amenities (although there are no TVs), rich antiques and some scenic views.

Across the street, a series of shops provide tantalizing shopping ops: Olive Oyl’s dishes up gourmet deli items and a vast selection of cigars; Sweet Martha’s is the place for ice cream and chocolates; Hatitudes, sports exotic head gear; and the Glass Basket Christmas Barn has a delightful selection of Christmas collectibles throughout the year.

The Valley Railroad, a couple of miles from the center of town, began operating an as a tourist attraction in 1971, 100 years after the line’s original run. It offers a scenic 12-mile excursion through the Connecticut River Valley via restored steam trains, which connect to an optional river cruise. Combination train and boat trips last two and half hours. The fare for adults for train and boat: $15; children 3 - 11: $7.50. Train only, adults: $10; children: $5. Children under 3 ride free.

Getting There:

Essex is 35 miles from Hartford and is reached via I-95 or I-91. From either direction, take Route 9 to exit 3, then Route 153, which becomes Main Street.

For more information about Essex, visit the Connecticut River Valley and Shoreline Visitors’ Council website at http://www.cttourism.org/