From Copper to Coppers
East Granby (Google Maps location)
September 1, 2018
I didn’t think this page would ever happen. Soon after I began writing this website in 2006, Newgate was “closed temporarily for repairs.” I thought, “good, maybe I’ll sort out if it’s ‘Newgate,” “New-Gate,” or “New Gate” by the time it reopens.
Nearly ten years went by before it was reopened in the summer of 2018 and no, I still don’t know which way is the correct way to refer to this National Historic Landmark. We are lucky to have it operational again. Though small, it is an amazing and impactful piece of history in north central Connecticut.
It is home to a couple US firsts, it has served a few distinct functions over its 300+ years of operation, and upon visiting, it will leave you chilled to the core. Physically and emotionally. Newgate was a horrible, horrible place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but we’re going to start at the beginning.
Just as you’d expect.
Back in the day… like, way back in the day. Decades before our country was a country and before Connecticut was a state, a bunch of local people began mining East Granby for copper ore. In fact, the sixty-four residents formed the first chartered copper mining company in the US (colonies). There’s your first first.
The mine was profitable enough for the proprietors to pay the town’s expenses and start up a school. (This was Simsbury at the time.) The mining operation continued up until nearly the American Revolution when it was more or less tapped out.. ORE was it?
The mine had been created by digging a vertical shaft and tunneling horizontally, with additional vertical shafts dug for ventilation. Most of it was through rock, so it wasn’t going anywhere. As the Revolution got going, some geniuses came up with a brilliant plan: make it a prison.
A dank, dark, cold, wet, cramped, underground prison. There would be no shortage of British loyalists to toss down there, the thought went, so the plan went forward.
Captain John Viets, whose family homestead was located across the road from the mine, was the first overseer of the new prison. (Viets Tavern still stands today and there are hopeful plans to make it an extension of the Newgate museum complex.) Viets and the colonial authorities who had concocted the prison plan were confident that the design of the converted mining tunnels – which were located below vertical shafts that were 25 and 60 feet deep — would render it impossible for inmates to escape.
Heck, they were so confident in their plan that they opened up the joint with only three guards on duty during the day only – after doing nothing more than blasting a sort of receiving room space and putting an iron door on top of the entrance shaft. The airway shafts were left as-is I believe.
The first prisoner, a burglar named John Hinson, escaped in less than three weeks… which became a theme. The prisoners were allowed to walk around the former mine and chill out together. Lest you think this made their incarceration pleasant, it was not. They all slept huddled together on straw mats while rats crawled over them and bats flew around them.
As the colonies moved toward independence, support for British rule became a crime. About 60 loyalists, a.k.a. Tories, were imprisoned in Newgate during the Revolution. Beginning in 1775, General George Washington sent “flagrant and atrocious villains” convicted of desertion from the Continental Army to Newgate as well as captured prisoners of war. Thus, Newgate became the first federal prison in the US (colonies). I guess it was the first state prison, except Connecticut wasn’t quite a state yet. It’s all very confusing.
Escapes and rebellions continued. In 1781, 22 Tories and common criminals killed a guard and conducted the largest mass escape in the prison’s history. Within a week, 16 of the escapees were re-captured and returned to the prison. Four months later, 12 more escaped. In the first nine years of its operation, over one half of Newgate’s inmates escaped. Which is kind of hilarious.
A fire in 1872, probably set by the inmates, destroyed the prisons’ wooden buildings for the third time. The prison was temporarily closed and the inmates transferred to a Hartford jail. This place was a mess.
The 12-foot high brick walls were added for more security – the ones still standing today. The number of guards was increased to 15 or so, but they were underpaid and untrained. They took to selling tickets to tourists to gawk at the prisoners and their condition. Prisoners were issued two different colored shoes so when they inevitably escaped, they could be more easily identified.
Once the prison had a better handle on security, Newgate’s reputation changed from lax to nightmarish. The conditions were horrid, and the prisoners were chained together and forced to work in the prison’s nail factory or mill operation. The prison never turned a profit for the state or war efforts or anything no matter how many schemes they concocted.
Murderers and rapists were bunking with horse-stealers and political dissidents. Escape became nearly impossible finally which is when the riots started. Guards were murdered. Prisoners were murdered. Everyone was murdered. Okay, not everyone, but Newgate became one of the worst places to be in America in the early part of the 19th century.
It became known simply as “Hell.”
From CT History:
At daylight, guards brought the prisoners up from the mines to the above-ground shops, where they worked until 4:00 p.m. When the prison first opened, the inmates mined copper, but New-Gate’s officials soon recognized the danger of putting digging tools in the hands of prisoners and instead put them to work making nails. By the time the prison shut down in 1827, the state had expanded its operations and employed inmates as shoemakers, coopers, blacksmiths, wagon makers, cooks, and basket makers. Those without trade skills dug stone, leveled the ground or made other improvements to the prison grounds. The most famous of the tasks assigned to the unskilled was operating the treadmill. Up to 22 men at a time powered this long, flanged wheel by climbing the paddles blades—a motion akin to walking up steps—in order to grind grain.
As former prisoner and master counterfeiter William Stuart recalled in his 1854 autobiography, “armies of fleas, lice, and bedbugs covered every inch of the floor which itself was covered in 5 inches of slippery, stinking filth.”
In answer to my hilarious punny rhetorical question several paragraphs above, a few more attempts at copper mining were made after the prison closed, but they were unsuccessful. The place fell to ruin and then most of the wooden structures burned down in 1904. Enterprising folks converted the former guardhouse into a dancehall. Weird. Then things went off the rails with wacky exhibits like bears and monkeys – two of which escaped to New Britain before capture. Someone stuck a WWI tank here for some reason. The state removed these features when it purchased and took over operation of the site in 1968. In 1973 the National Park Service designated New-Gate Prison a National Historic Landmark.
And in 2019, I visited with my wife and son. The state had closed Newgate in 2009 due to the budget crisis. I believe the plan was to just shut it – and several other state-run attractions – down for a short while to save a few bucks.
But that short shut down dragged on and on. Improvements were needed for the guardhouse and money was never earmarked for the effort. Of course, with each year of neglect, the cost to fix the place up grew precipitously. It was very frustrating to watch Newgate’s slow death.
I’d drive past it on my way to various hikes – the Metacomet Trail walks the ridge to the east of the prison and there is a hikeable state parcel of land right behind it – and wonder if I’d ever get inside. (In fact, we’d just finished a section of the Metacomet before coming here.)
The state did provide most of the money to get it going again, but volunteers did the yeoman’s work of creating all the new signage and I believe the tour guides and docents there now are mostly volunteer. And they do a great job; as we know, volunteers bring more passion and concern for the thing they love more than anyone else anyway.
Calvin loved going down into the mines but was a bit shook when we began describing what this place was when it was a prison. (Which, is good! Learning through experience! Yay museums!)
As I begin my fifth set of a hundred museums with this one, it’s good to be reminded why I’m doing this nonsense. Well done, Old Newgate, well done.