Gillette Castle, East Haddam

December, 2008 by Ray Bendici
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Gillette Castle, East Haddam
Photo by Ray Bendici

The Damned Story: Maybe because so many Connecticut residents have heard about it from when they were young and are so used to seeing it, that it hardly occurs to them that having a medieval-style castle looming high over a placid New England river valley is anything out of the ordinary.

But trust us, Gillette Castle is far from your ordinary Connecticut domicile.

Built from local fieldstone over a five-year span (1914-19), the castle is the loving creation of celebrated actor and playwright William Hooker Gillette, best known for being the first man to bring "Sherlock Holmes" to the stage. With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's blessing, he gave the character his iconic deerstalker cap, pipe and catchphrase "Oh this is elementary, my dear fellow," (which was later bastardized into "Elementary, my dear Watson"). He performed as Holmes over 1,000 times, amassing a tidy little fortune in the process, and like anyone with lots of money, wanted a special home to retire to. And who among us wouldn't want to live in their own castle?

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Photo by Ray Bendici

A Connecticut native and typical pragmatic Yankee, Gillette designed the entire edifice himself, including the 47 doors, each of which has a unique wooden puzzle lock that he also devised. The castle also has all sorts of unique and quirky features, such as a disappearing bar (used extensively during Prohibition) and a set of mirrors that let the voyeuristic Gillette see down into the main room of the castle from his own bedroom (so he could see when guests arrived and could make the proper "grand entrance").

Gillette was also fond of trains and built a small-scale working railroad -- with tunnels and bridges -- around his property (known as "The Seventh Sister"), often driving the engine himself for his guests. You know, because if you had the money, why wouldn't you have a three-mile railroad on your estate?

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Gillette was the king of his castle and loved it dearly, making a specific provision in his will that since he had no wife or children that the 128-acre estate did not fall into the hands "of some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded." After Gillette's death in 1937, the state of Connecticut inherited the property, and since then have made it a state park. Recently, significant renovations were made to the castle, and general improvements have been made to the grounds, including the addition of a visitor's center and small cafe.

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Photo by Ray Bendici

Our Damned Experience: I've been to the castle numerous times -- the spectacular view of the Connecticut River is almost worth the trip alone. The work the state has done has enhanced the visiting experience, although the sheer beauty of the property makes it easy to understand why Gillette acquired it almost upon first sight. I've hiked a bit of the park, picnicked and even done some letterboxing with the family, as well as have taken a bunch of "artsy" photos (which you see here).

With so much to offer, a visit to Gillette Castle is . . . well, elementary my dear friends.

If You Go: Gillette Castle State Park is open year-round; the castle is open for tours from Memorial Day through Columbus Day.
View Gillette Castle State Park in a larger map

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Comments

Submitted by Belinda (not verified) on
I went to Gillette Castle in the Fall with my fiance and 2 sons. This place is mysterious and beautiful. All the stone work is unique and adds to the castles mystique. I did get the sense that the place is definitely inhabited by things other than humans. But nothing seriously threatening. The entire place holds a certain comfort and peace. It is indeed strange but inviting nonetheless.

Submitted by allan james (not verified) on
As a young boy I spent a lot of time at the castle, open or not, dreaming of making it my home one day! I had no idea of how this would come about but my heart yearned to remain there. It is a peaceful ,restful, place sitting high above the ct. river that has a view never to be outdone in my lifetime. Of course I have never attained my dream of owning the castle but have been married there, dreamed there, cried there, loved there, and left my heart there! I had the honor of having had a collection of personal papers ,letters and other personal effects of mr. gillettes in my possession for years! I once spoke with his sister by telephone when I was but 16 yrs. old as she still resided in the area. YES that castle will steal your imagination and change your life if your not careful.