Daycation: Take a trip into the past with Essex Steam Train, boat ride and visit to Gillette Castle

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Essex - posted Wed., Aug. 22, 2012
Zach Carlson Jr. and Jim Welsh IV meet 'Ramblin' Joe' at the Essex Train Station. Photos by Denise Coffey.
Zach Carlson Jr. and Jim Welsh IV meet 'Ramblin' Joe' at the Essex Train Station. Photos by Denise Coffey.

With a loud, “All Aboard,” the clanging of bells and bursts of smoke from a 1920s engine, the Essex Steam Train brings passengers on a trip into the past. The steam train, complete with engine, tender, open car, parlor car and coaches, gives passengers the experience of early rail travel.

Commuter coaches built from 1915 to 1925 afford a chance to feel what it was like to travel on the Central Railroad of New Jersey and Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. The parlor car, with upholstered chairs, carpeted interior and built-in side tables is the only car native to Connecticut. Originally used on the New Haven Yankee Clipper, which ran from Boston to New York City, this car gives passengers a feel for what it used to be like to ride in first class luxury. And for those who want the feel of the wind in their hair, and perhaps a little soot from the coal engine, there is the open car. This windowless car gives riders an uninterrupted scenic view on the 12-mile round trip. The American Locomotive Company engine uses about 75 pounds of coal per mile, all of it shoveled by an actual crew member.

President Bob Bell wanders the station area in railroad baron costume. World traveler “Ramblin' Joe,” in safari hat and clothes, moves through the cars striking up conversations, singing railroad songs and sharing stories of his travels around the world. Conductors dressed in period garb punch tickets. As the train makes its slow way north to Chester, a narrator shares information about railroads, the Connecticut River and the towns that sprang up along its banks.

Passengers can purchase tickets for a train ride, a train ride with hike to Gillette Castle, or a train ride and steam boat combination. Tickets for the train ride are $17 for adults, $9 for children. Children under 2 years old ride for free. For those choosing the hike, passengers disembark for a short walk to the Chester/Hadlyme Ferry, which takes them to the base of the Gillette Castle State Park. Hikers are given about two and a half hours to make the three-quarter mile round trip hike and castle visit.

Those opting to take the hour-and-a-quarter cruise on the Becky Thatcher are treated to a leisurely, narrated tour of a 7-mile section of the Connecticut River. It is an area the Nature Conservancy calls one of 40 biologically important ecosystems in the western hemisphere, according to the ship's narrator. Passengers can see a variety of birds and long stretches of undeveloped shoreline. The boat takes them close to the base of the Gillette Castle, the Chester/Hadlyme Ferry (the oldest continuing ferry in the country) and Goodspeed Opera House before turning at the East Haddam swing bridge. Tickets for the train and boat combination are $26 for adults and $17 for kids 2-11. Children under 2 years old ride for free. There are additional fees for travel in the open and parlor cars.

Beverages, snacks and prepackaged food are available at the Trackside Cafe and on the Becky Thatcher. Gillette Castle offers snacks and beverages at its Castle Cuisine Snack Bar. Visitors opting for the train ride or train/boat combination might want to pack a picnic lunch and drive to Gillette Castle afterward. That way, kids can work off the steam they've built up. A range of restaurants is also available in Essex, Chester and East Haddam. A tourist guide on the Essex Steam Train website lists some of them.

Gillette Castle State Park affords visitors grand views of the Connecticut River from the windows and porticoes of the field stone mansion. Commissioned by stage actor William Gillette and completed in 1919 on top of the highest of seven area hills, the castle and 200 acres were acquired by the state in 1943. Park facilities include picnic areas, visitor center, gift shop, concession stand and hiking trails. Castle tours are free for children under 5, $2 for ages 6-12, and $6 for ages 13 and up.

Visitors can tour three levels of the stone structure, including a 30-foot by 50-foot great room with a 19-foot-tall ceiling. A self-guided tour takes visitors through the kitchen, bedrooms and gallery. The interior boasts carved wooden doors and light switches, a locking bar, a fire suppression system, and carefully designed and placed closets and mirrors. Views from the windows and grounds are stunning.

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