Monthly Archives: January 2014

George Washington’s Chief Spy was a Connecticut Man


Benjamin Tallmadge, a graduate of Yale, and classmate of Nathan Hale,  was a teacher in Wethersfield until the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill.  He eventually became George Washington’s chief intelligence officer.

After the war, Tallmadge settled in Litchfield and for a time served as a member of Congress from Connecticut.


You can also scroll back in time on this blog and see a related entry



Essex Steam Train and Riverboat in the Connecticut River Valley

Essex riverboat & Goodspeed

When it comes to enjoying a sightseeing trip in a spectacular natural setting, and doing it in an interesting and historic way, the Connecticut River Valley offers opportunities not to be found elsewhere. The Essex Steam Train & Riverboat provides not only a fascinating way to do this but it gives an experience not soon forgotten. Visitors using these historic modes of transportation have an opportunity to not only step back in time, but to ride there–on the rails and on the river.

Vintages coaches—restored 1920s Pullman Cars–hauled by an authentic steam locomotive from a bygone era take passengers from the historic 1892 Essex Station on tracks that were originally laid in 1871. The train takes guests through a number of classic New England towns as it makes its way through the unspoiled Connecticut River Valley, an area named “one of the last great places on earth” by the Nature Conservancy.”  And then there’s the riverboat Becky Thatcher, which train passengers can board at the Deep River Landing.

If that name sounds familiar it should. Mark Twain included her in his book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a classic he wrote while living in nearby Hartford.   The riverboat offers 1 ¼ hour tours on the Connecticut River, passing by breathtaking scenes of nature, including coves, marshes and then such historic sights as Gillette Castle and the Goodspeed Opera House.

Connecticut River Museum in historic Essex Focuses on a New England Treasure


(Photo:  Jody Dole)

If water could speak in a language we understood, what a tale the mighty Connecticut River could tell. For starters, it just might point out there are two significant anniversaries this year that involve it.

It might note that it is the largest river in New England, one that begins a 410-mile run to the open waters of Long Island Sound from modest beginnings in Pittsburg, New Hampshire, some 300 yards from the Canadian border.

It would tell about the history that has grown up around it, and if in an expansive mood, it might even point out that it is one of a few in the U.S. to have been designated an American Heritage River. The mighty Connecticut might even be coaxed into relating how the Nature Conservancy has named its tidelands one of the Western Hemisphere’s “40 Last Great Places.”  Well, maybe not since through history the Connecticut River has been content to let its actions speak for it.

Also speaking for it these days is the Connecticut River Museum in historic Essex. It is devoted to sharing the river’s past, present and future in colorful and interesting ways.

Visitors to the museum can learn about those important anniversaries: How in 1614 Adraien Block, the Dutch explorer, became the first European to map the river that runs right by the museum, and two hundred years later how the British during the War of 1812 came up the river in the dead of night and burned about two dozen American ships located at and near the what is now the museum site.

They can inspect a copy of the Turtle, the world’s first submarine documented to have been used in combat that was invented by David Bushnell of nearby Old Saybrook, and used in New York harbor during the Revolutionary War.

At different times of the year, museum visitors can cruise the Connecticut River on the historic schooner Mary E, enjoying the river’s natural beauty during the warm weather months and in February getting a look at the majestic bald eagles as they winter nearby.

Those and many other delights await visitors to the Connecticut River Museum.

Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme: Home of American Impressionism


(Childe Hassam, Summer Evening, 1886. Florence Griswold Museum:

 The comings and goings on Lyme Street today in no way compare to the movement there in 1841 when Captain Robert Griswold bought the imposing, late-Georgian style mansion for his bride.

A lot more than the traffic count has changed since Capt. Griswold acquired the home. After prosperity turned to penury for the Griswolds, the home became first a school and then under his daughter “Miss Florence”, a boarding house, thus beginning a journey that would earn it a place in history.

The home was frequented by artists, including giants in the American Impressionist school of painting. Since 1947 the stately home has welcomed the public as the Florence Griswold Museum. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

Just as the 19th century was to give way to the 20th, the prominent landscape artist Henry Ward Ranger arrived there. With the arrival of Childe Hassam four years later, the focus shifted from Tonalism to Impressionism. Eventually, this idyllic Connecticut location became known as the “American Giverny”.

Woodrow Wilson visited with his artist wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, and family on four occasions, staying in the guesthouse. It was during his 1910 visit that he issued a statement that he would run for governor of New Jersey. Two years later he went on to become the 28th President of the United States and led the nation in WW-I.

Whether visitors come to look at the historic house, view the collection there or in the 10,000 sq. ft. Robert and Nancy Krieble Gallery, or just breathe in the beauty and marvel at the work of art nature created there, it is a journey worth taking.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum tells why the Irish Came Here in Such Numbers

Cottages, West of Ireland

Cottages, West of Ireland, 1928–30, Paul Henry RHA

The Irish who began arriving in 19th century Connecticut were a dispossessed people, Catholics in a Protestant land who fled their native country out of desperation after a politically-induced famine that claimed more than 1 million lives and forced the exodus of twice again that many.

In the next century and a half, the Irish would become a substantial portion of Connecticut’s  population and make significant contributions here.  By 1850, the Irish had become the largest foreign-born group in the state.

Writing for The Patch news service, the historian Philip R. Devlin said Connecticut residents  who claim Irish ancestry today are significant in number.

“The percentage of Connecticut’s residents who claim Irish ancestry exceeds the country’s percentage by 7%,” he has written. “Almost 18% of Connecticut residents claim Irish ancestry — nearly one out of every five people in the state. It is a number only exceeded by Connecticut residents who claim Italian ancestry — 19.3%.”

But numbers don’t begin to tell the story of why the Irish came here in such large volume. The answer can be found in Hamden where Quinnipiac University opened Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in 2012.

It proclaims to be “ home to the world’s largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials relating to the starvation and forced emigration that occurred throughout Ireland from 1845 to 1850.”

If art’s purpose is to move us, to touch something deep within, then Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum succeeds.

The Boxcar children have their own museum in Putnam


The allure of the open road has long been a source of fascination in American literature and life. Writers from Walt Whitman to Jack Kerouac have given voice to the longing felt by many to strike out in search of something new, something better, something different.

For Gertrude Chandler Warner that open road took the form of the railroad that ran past the house in 19th century Putnam where she grew up. That experience, combined with a good imagination and a love of children, led her to produce an immensely popular series of books, The Boxcar Children written for those in grades 2-6.

She died in 1979, but the staying power of her children’s literary franchise is such that in 2012 the School Library Journal named her original book as one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time. The National Education Association, citing a 2007 poll, named it as one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for children”.

Since 2004 devoted followers also have made their way to her hometown tucked up in the state’s northeastern “Quiet Corner” to go through a museum devoted to her and her literary offerings.  Appropriately enough the museum is located in a real boxcar not far from her girlhood home and the school where she would later teach first grade.

Before you visit that precious bit of Americana, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, take a look at more about Gertrude Chandler Warner and her contributions to firing the imaginations of countless young children.

Virtual Visit to Connecticut spies in Revolutionary War

Okay, class, may I have your attention?  Thank you.

Today’s lesson might be called a quick trip into Revolutionary War espionage as practiced by Connecticut residents.

Now, everyone who has heard of Nathan Hale raise your hand. Good. Everyone but that guy in the corner. I will speak to you after class, sir.

Now, everyone who has heard of Sgt. Thomas Daniel Bissell, Benjamin Tallmadge and Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton raise your hand.  Hmmn, just the guy in the corner raised his. Now, sir, I really want to see you after class. There appear to be some gaps in your education.

Well for everyone but the gentleman in the corner, let’s focus on Sgt. Bissell of Windsor.  None other than Gen. Washington sent him behind enemy lines in 1781.  He emerged more than a year later with valuable information and a harrowing tale of survival. For years in his hometown it was thought he was a traitor.

The Windsor Patch relates the tale of this Connecticut man’s extraordinary contribution to the cause of America’s freedom.

Mr C’s Connecticut History Question



Photos, Top: Perry’s Victory, painted by William Henry Powell of Cincinnati in 1865; Bottom:  Pawcatuck River with former C.B. Cottrell & Son complex shown.

Q.  What do Oliver Hazard Perry, Hero of Lake Erie in the War of 1812 and C.B. Cottrell have in common?

A.  They both did business on the banks of the Pawcatuck River, which has formed the southern portion of Connecticut’s border with Rhode Island since at least 1636.

Calvin Bryon Cottrell, and his partner Nathan Babcock, were 19th century businessmen whose company C.B. Cottrell & Sons built printing presses into the 20th century on the river’s edge in the Pawcatuck section of Stonington.  Mr. Cottrell had more than 100 American and European patents to his credit.  At one time their company was the second largest pressworks manufacturer in the United States.

Commodore Perry, “We have met the enemy and they are ours”, played on the river as a child living in Westerly (RI) and later built gunboats there for the U.S. government.  That was before he sailed into harm’s way and won the important battle on Lake Erie against a formidable English fleet.

The naval engagement gave the U.S. Navy control of the Great Lakes.  The Perry-led victory severed the British supply lines and forced them to abandon Detroit.

A Virtual Visit to New London’s Stone Fleet


There’s been a lot of water traffic on the historic Thames River. It began with dugout canoes used by native peoples who lived on the river banks when the Europeans made their presence known in the 1600s.

The traffic continues to this day with the most sophisticated undersea craft of the nuclear navy and whole fleets of recreational craft. 

In between, there was all manner of merchant vessels making their way to and from the port of New London. None was more unusual than the Stone Fleet that set “sail” in 1861 bound for Civil War duty in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

Never heard of the Stone Fleet that left New London to join other ships, mostly former whalers, from New Bedford and Boston? The University of South Carolina can take care of that for you.  

The Fleet is long gone, but New London’s historic harbor is well worth a visit.