Something’s Fishy in Essex
Essex (Google Maps Location)
October 20 & December 10, 2006
[2016 Update: I Don’t really have anything to add here. Still a cool museum in one of my favorite towns in the state. It’s funny re-reading this now though, as I write that it was my first visit to Essex. Weird reading that now. Just wish I had larger format pictures, of course.]
It sure didn’t take long for me to rope my wife Hoang into joining me to visit a museum! We hadn’t really planned on going to the River Museum, due to some scheduling conflicts and a nor’easter – we missed the 2 PM Essex Steam Train trip by (literally) one minute. My tickets to that attraction would have to wait for another day. No matter, as it was a terrible day weather-wise anyway and hey! I just happened to know of a nearby museum! Awesome.
After the steam train puttered out of view (we eventually made the train trip, with Damian in tow – read about it here), we slowly drove through the center of Essex down to the Connecticut River. I had never been to Essex before – but I assure you that on an autumn day here, it is stunning. It looks like a puzzle picture scene at every turn. In fact, it was named America’s Best Small Town 5 years ago. Even in the rain with most of my attention on the roads covered with wet leaves, I was impressed.
We arrived at the attractive looking museum in short order and hustled inside; out of the windy rain. We were greeted by a woman who immediately apologized that a third of the museum being closed. Unfortunately for us, the top floor was being renovated for the annual Christmas model train display. Before I could complain, she whipped out two complimentary passes for a return visit good anytime during the next year.
I’ll take it.
Hoang and I mosied on over to what turned out to be the children’s portion of the place but since I’m going to be thorough on this website, we took it all in. Some of it was a mish-mash that made no sense to adults but maybe little kids don’t care and would have enjoyed it just fine. We “adults” goofed around and caught some fish. I don’t know what I learned from that, but it was fun to play fisherman for a moment.
Actually, there were some nice little, “Keep the river clean” stories and even a matter-of-fact evolution sign that some yahoo eloquently disagreed with via his well-reasoned graffito rebuttal: “Not!” Thanks for that. Undeterred, Hoang went about the delicate process of unearthing a Devonian fish fossil… Seriously, she took forever and got upset when I suggested her “dig” wasn’t authentic. Time to move on to the adult portions of the museum.
The first floor houses a nice display of the historical aspects of the shipbuilding industry of the surrounding area. We learned about the birth of shipbuilding, the Navy, and our country. Beginning before the Revolutionary war, Connecticut was tasked with building a few warship schooners and Essex was a hub. Some guy named Uriah Hayden built the first ship here and named it the Oliver Cromwell. All I remember about Oliver Cromwell was that he led a group named the Roundheads back in England. Though I’ve completely forgotten who/what the Roundheads were all about, props to my 8th grade history teacher for jamming that fact into my brain.
The early Revolutionary history of Connecticut, it turns out, is rather murky. A bunch of guys played both sides and others were “Profiteers.” The funny thing is, some of these jerks have things named after them all over the state. Silas Deane? Punk. Then again, they did just come over from England so I guess it’s okay to remain loyal to your motherland. I’m sure I’ll learn much more about this stuff while writing this site.
Each state had its own Navy and was asked to build a ship for the war effort. There were a bunch of things going on behind the scenes with turncoats and families getting rich or going broke due to trade issues. Connecticut’s ship, the Trumbull was built up-river in Middletown, sailed down to Essex, and got stuck on a giant sandbar. Hoo boy, this was quite a scandal back in the day – and was only corrected by an ingenious flotilla of bouyant barrels several months later. The Trumbull turned out to kick butt and ended up capturing a bunch of British warships before it became the last of the original 13 captured by the Brits. Believe me, this is all very exciting stuff when you’re at the Museum itself.
We watched a very poorly acted video with the verbal anachronism, “gonna” and a convoluted story of war that only confused me more. Hey, at least the good guys won, right? Ships were built along the Connecticut River and some people made money off of that and lots of people died and the colonies won their freedom a year or two later. Time for the second floor.
The second floor picked up the history after the Revolutionary war shows off a bunch of nice paintings – of ships, of ports, and of important men of the early 19th century.
Here’s something I learned… Essex is one of the few cities in America ever attacked by a foreign power. During the War of 1812, the Brits attacked the town and the ships being built there. This resulted in their complete destruction. Today, Essex “celebrates” this attack every year with a parade.
I can’t wait for my hometown to begin the “Yay! Town Taxes!” parade every fiscal year.
There was a display of elephant tusks too. Why? Because back in the 1800’s up until the mid 1900’s, the emergent steamboat technology allowed merchants to hack off elephant tusks in Zanzibar and ship them economically to the Connecticut River where the town of Ivoryton (part of Essex) was the US leader in Ivory sculptures and industry.
[2016 me here… it’s really neat for me to read stuff I wrote 9 years ago that is just common knowledge to me now but was completely new to me then… War of 1812 stuff, Ivoryton, Ezra Lee… All good stuff.]
As steamers became omnipresent, the Connecticut River became a major point between Boston and New York and towns like Hartford really took off. It was cool to see some of the paintings depicting our capital city back in the day. Of course, the river itself was a cesspool and the standard of living was atrocious, but the paintings sure do look purty.
Our tour saved the best for last. The crown jewel of the museum is the Turtle, an ingenious little submarine from the Revolutionary War. Now, if you’re like me, you just said, “What?! A submarine from the late 1700’s? That’s ridiculous!” And it WAS ridiculous, but it (sort of) worked.
A guy named Ezra Lee quickly learned how to operate this contraption and one night plopped it into the water, cranked the thing a pace underneath a Royal British Navy ship, launched his bomb, and skedaddled out of there. The bomb didn’t attach to the ship as planned, but it scared the bejesus out of the Limeys causing them to flee that “infernal machine.” This was in 1776 and the museum has a working replica of the original. Now, I’m not claustraphobic, I can swim, and I’m all for Revolution… but no WAY would I put myself in this position:
Since the third floor was closed, we browsed the gift shop and went outside. Sure, the weather was gloomy but there is something somehow romantic about a gray New England Fall day. I don’t know why, but I bet Robert Frost could explain it. I didn’t have time to reflect on it, because I had miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.
On our drive back out through the town and northward towards home, we passed the spot where the Oliver Cromwell was built.
Two months later we attempted to experience the outdoor Mystic Seaport. It was December and this is New England… so it didn’t work out. However, since we were down near there, we decided to check out the third floor train set-up at the Connecticut River Museum. So here is part two… Enjoy!
Back on Track in Essex
Museum Visit 2b
December 10, 2006
After quickly deciding that wheeling a 10-month-old around the docks of the Mystic Seaport in near freezing wind gusts (though we did return several months later) would probably generate more than a few anonymous calls to the Department of Children and Families, we drove back north towards home. I had promised Hoang a “quaint lunch” in one of Connecticut’s quaint New England villages. And I can’t think of a quainter New England village than the Village of Essex, which was right along the way. And it also is home to the Connecticut River Museum.
Now why in the world would we revisit one of the 5 places I had already been to when we had hundreds and hundreds others still to experience? As you just read above, when we last visited the museum, the third floor was closed in order to set up the Holiday Model Train exhibit.
Now that we just happened to be in town and I had just happened to have remembered my free passes, we would be enjoying some model trains. I love elaborate model train set-ups and I figure it’s never too early to start Damian on a train kick.
We first attempted to have our quaint lunch at the famous Griswold Inn but learned that they were only offering Sunday buffet brunch which required a wait. Boy that crackling fire smelled good and it sure was quaint… But waits and buffets don’t match well with a baby boy. So… On to the trains! We walked on down to the river and the museum and reveled in the beautiful day. There was hardly any wind here, just a few miles inland, so Damian was fine taking in the sights of the historic town.
It felt really cool giving the woman at the front desk the free passes, which I did with a smug, “I am better than everyone else here” flair. We went straight upstairs to what promised to be a huge and intricate train set up. Maybe.
What we found was a smallish room with a 25 foot by 6 foot train table, with about 4 trains traveling oval tracks and no topography at all. Note to Model Holiday Train designers: We fans need a mountain and a tunnel at the least! Before I studied the tracks, I wandered around the room; there was scant historical information but rather just a bunch of old prints and pictures for sale. (This is not indicative of the museum as a whole, which is quite enjoyable.)
I admit, I was (ignorantly, it turns out) disappointed in the trains at first so I found myself glossing over the whole set-up. Fortunately, Hoang was paying better attention and began noticing some of the finer details. Being a New Britain girl, she couldn’t contain her glee at seeing a little piece of her childhood:
After wiping the nostalgic tear from her cheek, she made her way to the other end of the table where she found a few tiny scenes hidden in the cityscape that more than justified the whole experience.
Or, perhaps, living in an industrial town literally surrounded by at least 4 train lines and all their noxious fumes has simply driven the town mad?
[Note: I later learned that the Monkey Farm Cafe is a real bar in nearby Old Saybrook.]
Oh, poor, besieged, tiny plastic townsfolk, I do hope you have happy holidays anyway. We bundled up Damian, asked some man where we could have our quaint lunch, scratched our heads at his 20-mile-away suggestion that he just would not relinquish, and walked back up towards the commercial center of town. We settled on the Black Seal restaurant and enjoyed our not-so-quaint but totally delicious lunch while Damian wooed the old ladies on both sides of us with his cooing and his dimples. That’s my boy.