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Enchanting Essex

The Connecticut River

On what was a beautiful June day last Thursday I decided it was too nice to stay in the house so I planned a drive up to the Connecticut State Veterans' Cemetery in Middletown to visit the grave of a friend and check out the cemetery as a possible final resting place for myself. As is my wont, though, I found myself distractedly wandering off of my route of travel and stopping by Essex which is located on the banks of the Connecticut River about 31 miles from where I live in Norwich.

Essex - which was touted as "The Best Small Town in America" by Norman Crampton in his book "The 100 Best Small Towns in America" - is made up of three villages: Essex Village, Ivoryton, and Centerbrook. As this was sort of an unscheduled stop, I didn't get to either Ivoryton or Centerbrook but did have a pleasant time walking around parts of Essex Village.

State of Connecticut Sign for Essex - front
State of Connecticut Sign for Essex - back

Originally named Potapoug (prior to it being called Essex Borough in 1820), Essex was part of Saybrook Township and was first settled in 1648 long before it was incorporated as a town of its own in 1852. During that time it had a very interesting history as a shipbuilding town and was one of the few American towns to ever be attacked by a foreign power during the War of 1812. On April 8th, 1814, 136 British marines and sailors, accompanied by one American guide, rowed five boats six miles up the Connecticut River from four warships that were anchored in Long Island Sound arriving at the foot of Main Street at approximately 4:00 in the morning. Eliciting a promise of no resistance from the Essex militia in return for promising not to harm the townspeople or burn their homes, the British quickly commandeered the town. A local myth states that Richard Coote, Commander of the troops, didn't burn the town as a favor to a local merchant who greeted him with a secret Masonic handshake but that was never proven as fact.

After securing the town, the British marched to the Bushnell Tavern (now the Griswold Inn) where they seized the town's store of ropes and "$100,000 or upwards" worth of rum and then accomplished the main purpose of their attack - burning 26 newly or nearly constructed privateers - ships that were authorized by the government via Letters of Marque and Reprisal to attack foreign shipping during wartime. At the time the ships were estimated to be worth nearly $200,000 (i.e., a lot of money back then!) so it was obviously a devastating loss to the town.

Upon completion of their mission, which took roughly six hours, the British rowed back downstream with two captured vessels in tow but soon found themselves stranded by the low tide. During the time that they were forced to wait for the tide to turn, the British found themselves taking on fire as targets of the volunteer militia from the nearby towns of Lyme and Killingworth who lined the riverbanks. Two British sailors were killed and one other was wounded while the two captured privateer ships had to be destroyed before the rest of the troops were able to escape to safety.

The Connecticut River

As a result of this historic event, every year since 1964 the town of Essex has hosted the annual 'Burning of the Ships Commemoration' on the second Saturday of May. According to their website, the Sailing Masters of 1812 - an ancient fife and drum corps whose ancestors were the men who played with the Comstock Drum Corps based in Ivoryton during the latter part of the 19th century - "commemorate this event because of its role in the War of 1812 and its significance in galvanizing support for the defeat of the British. The event begins at the Town Hall with a parade down Main Street at 2:00 P.M.. Other fife and drum corps from the Connecticut River Valley participate in the parade and perform in a small “muster” that follows at the foot of Main Street near Steamboat Dock. The parade then continues back to the Town Hall for refreshments and a “jollification”, where all musicians play favorite tunes of the genre." Even though they're commemorating a defeat, it sounds like a jolly good time and one I'll have to try to remember to check out next year as I'm sure there are plenty of photographic opportunities.

Boats on the Connecticut River

Speaking of photographic opportunities, how about a little walk around town?

The Connecticut River Museum

This is the Connecticut River Museum which is quite aptly located on the banks of the Connecticut River at Steamboat Dock. The museum was "was established in 1974 as a small, all-volunteer organization dedicated to the dream of establishing a museum that would preserve the history of the Connecticut River and its people." With seven current collections from paintings and photographs to navigation tools to more, the museum is housed in a restored 1878 steamboat warehouse with three floors of exhibits for visitors to learn about the marine environment and maritime heritage of the Connecticut River Valley.

Thomas A. Stevens Research Library/Oliver Jenson History Center of the Connecitcut River Museum

Part of the Connecticut River Museum, this 1813 Federal-style ship's chandlery (candle shop) and general store was built by Richard Hayden, a shipbuilder and merchant who suffered major financial losses in the British raid of 1814 and died two years later at the age of 44. Originally located on the corner of Novelty Lane, the building was moved in 1949 to its current site and placed on a modern foundation where it is now serves as the Thomas A. Stevens Research Library and Oliver Jensen History Center.

Again, this not being a planned trip I didn't really have the time to visit the museum itself but I may have to get back down there so that I can check out the "Turtle", a full-scale replica of the first American submarine which was constructed in Essex in 1776 for use against the British in the American Revolution, or maybe even take an afternoon or sunset sail aboard the historic schooner the Mary E.

Leaving the museum and Steamboat Dock behind, I walked back up Main Street towards the rest of town passing the spot where the Oliver Cromwell, the largest full-rigged ship constructed for Connecticut after the establishment of the colony’s navy, was built in 1776 by town resident Uriah Hayden. From 1776 to 1778, the ship went on to capture five British ships before its final battle against the HMS Daphne when its captain and crew were taken prisoner and the ship captured; it was later renamed the Restoration by the British.

If you like looking at early architecture, Essex Village is most definitely the place to go as there are beautiful examples of Federal, Colonial, Georgian, and even Greek Revival style homes throughout the village - homes that have been lovingly maintained throughout the years and exude history by their very presence. I didn't get pictures of all of the houses as Essex has a lot of them but there are enough to hopefully give you a pretty good idea of what the village looks like.

Waterfront Essex Home

This is the 1767 home of Uriah Hayden which stands at the very end of Main Street across from the Connecticut River Museum. It possesses a commanding view of the Connecticut River from the porch and across the sweeping lawn as you can see in the picture below. When Hayden built the house he added on a walk-out basement and eventually opened a tavern there along with his wife Ann. In 1918 the house became the home of The Dauntless Club, a private organization, and remains as such to this day.

Looking east to the Connecticut River
Hayden-Starkey Store 1809

Just up from the Uriah Hayden House is the former 1809 Hayden-Starkey Store and Warehouse which was built and owned by Samuel Hayden and Ebenezer Hayden II, both sons of shipbuilder Uriah Hayden, along with their brother-in-law Timothy Starkey, Jr. Built of brick, the costly construction made an important social statement about the status of its owners. During that infamous attack of 1814, rope that was stored in the basement here was destroyed.

Federal-Style Essex Home

This Georgian-style house belonged to the town's leading merchant Ebenezer Hayden, who was also the lower Connecticut River Valley's leading financier and entrepreneur. It is believed that the roof members were cut and shaped in the Windsor, Connecticut area and then shipped downriver for assembly on the site in the late 1700's and that the Federal-style doorway may have been added after 1800 to update the house.

Noah Tooker House - 1734

This Colonial-style home with a center chimney was built in 1734 by Noah Tooker, another Essex shipbuilder. I have to say that the hedges and the birdhouse were most impressive!

Essex Coffee

Just up the road a little bit is the Essex Coffee & Tea Company where one can stop in for tasty refreshments. Though the plaque on the side of the house reads "Timothy Starkey 1720" this is the Felix Starkey House which was built in 1803 by Thomas Millard, a local shipcarver and housewright. The house was occupied from 1805 to 1856 by Felix Starkey, a merchant and brother of Timothy Starkey. In addition to their fresh roasted coffees, artisan teas, and baked goods they also host monthly displays by local artists as well as performances by local musicians.

Toys Ahoy Store

For thirty-three years, Toys Ahoy! has been located in the 1801 Ephraim Bound Homestead. 

St John's Episcopal Church in Essex, CT

St. John’s Episcopal Church
, founded by Uriah Hayden in 1790, was originally located in Centerbrook and then moved to Prospect Street in Essex Village in 1800. Through the generosity of Captain Joseph Tucker, a prominent shipmaster married to Mary Hayden, a new building was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style by Bridgeport architect Joseph W. Northrup and constructed of granite and brownstone in 1894 at the corners of Main and Cross Street. The church contains many stained glass windows taken from the earlier 1800 church building as well as the bell from the original 1790 Centerbrook church.

The Essex Post Office

I know absolutely nothing about the town's Post Office other than it looks really nice! 

Essex Gazebo

Essex's Town Park is located next to the Post Office where three homes once stood. Now there's a lovely gazebo and lots of greenery as well as benches for relaxing.

The 1845 James Phelps House

This Greek Revival house was built in 1840 for Judge James Phelps who was a U.S. Congressman elected to represent Connecticut's 2nd District in the United States House of Representatives where he served from 1875 to 1883. He also served as a Member of the Connecticut State Legislature and was a State Court Judge.

The Uriah Hayden House - 1847

The plaque on this house reads "Uriah Hayden 1847" but so far I haven't been able to find out anything about it other than I really liked it and it had a "For Sale" sign nearby.  Ah, if only ... 

Essex Blooms

These beautiful blooms adorned a fence across the street from the First Congregational Church of Essex which was established in 1852 when a group of parishioners left the Centerbrook Church and built this church to be closer to Essex village.

The First Congregational Church of Christ, Essex

The present church sanctuary was built on Methodist Hill when fifty-two people decided to gather as a congregation and establish a place to worship. It's grown quite a bit since 1852 both in building size as well as congregation. 

Essex Square

A traffic directional located in the center of Essex Square. 

Plaque with the history of Essex Square

My short walk from Steamboat Dock to Essex Square only scratched the surface of the history that's to be found in the town so I'm sure there will be more posts forthcoming once I get the chance to revisit the area and spend more time - time that I've actually planned on spending rather than just making a short stop on my way to someplace else!

I know I use the word "quintessential" a lot when describing things in New England but when it fits, it fits and that's definitely a word that fits Essex as that's exactly what it is. Quintessential. Oh, and did I happen to mention that one of the oldest continuously operating inns in America is located in Essex? No? Ah, well, there most certainly is ... however The Griswold Inn warrants a post all its own!

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