Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine are currently closed to the public for renovations. See below.
The Damned Story: It makes perfect sense when you think about it: What do you do with a deep, dark hole in the ground when it’s no longer profitable as a copper mine? Turn it into a prison, of course!
The part of the story where it ventures into damned territory, however, occurs a few centuries later when the spirits of the men whose wills were broken there are still allegedly hanging around.
It all started back in the beginning of the 18th century, when settlers exploring the East Granby area noticed the green residue associated with a copper deposit on some rocks. Seizing the opportunity, the property owners started digging and officially opened for business as the first copper mine in the United States in 1707. Over the next five decades or so, the mine was worked and profits were made.
Like with any capitalist venture, however, there can come a point when doing business is no longer profitable, and mining operations eventually ceased. No longer useful as a mine, it was decided that the property might make a good prison. It was chartered as such by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1773, thus becoming the first prison in the United States. The new New-Gate Prison (named after the notorious Newgate Prison in London, England) then welcomed its first inmate, John Hinson.
New-Gate Prison would house prisoners for the next 50 years, until 1827, when it was closed and the inmates were moved to another facility. It re-opened as a mine for about three decades before finally becoming inactive. Around the beginning of the 20th century, it was turned into a tourist attraction, and essentially has been one since.
Of course, the period when the property was a prison is when the majority of tragic events occurred that would set the stage for eventual alleged hauntings. As with any prison (or mining property, for that matter), there were a number of unfortunate — and fatal — incidents, along with the general suffering, misfortune and inhumane treatment common to any place of prolonged harsh incarceration.
In its time, New-Gate Prison saw its share of fatal “insurrections.” In 1806, one involving 30 men started in the blacksmith and nail shop, and ended with the death of inmate Aaron Goomer. Another occurred in 1823, this featuring over 100 prisoners, two of whom were fatally shot by guards.
And obviously, there were failed escape attempts.
One of the most notorious escape-gone-awry stories happened in 1827, when Abel Starkey fell to his death while trying to escape by climbing up a rope that had been dangling in the well (which was accessible from down below in addition on top). No mention if the rope had been made of knotted bedsheets or not.
As with any location associated with such a dark history, New-Gate Prison has gained a reputation as a haunted spot. Over the years, there have been stories of spirits allegedly spotted roaming the grounds, as well as ethereal voices supposedly heard in the mine’s tunnels.
It has been officially designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Our Damned Experience: We broke into Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine in August 2009, on a very hot day when going down into a cool, dank hole seemed like a good idea, which it was.
First off though, we roamed the grounds, checking out the remains of the prison. We went through the basement of the guardhouse, which had the remnants of some cells and storage, then up to the main hall of the guardhouse, which is dedicated to detailing the history of the prison. (We especially enjoyed the avuncular gentleman who hosts the DVD presentation about the prison.) Obviously, we took lots of pictures.
It was also slippery and mostly rock, with a generally low ceiling all around, so we were cautious moving around. Still, we got to explore all the accessible space down there, from the solitary confinement chamber to the deepest point, where the puddles were a bit deeper. We also got to check out the bottom of the (now filled-in) well where Abel Starkey fell to his death — and we also looked up to see the last sight he probably ever saw.
We didn’t see or hear anything unusual. As Steve pointed out, the mine is basically a circle where echoes carry well, so it’s possible that a voice from another part of the mine could be heard in an area where someone thought they were alone. And as the mine is an uneven, shadowy hole in the rocks with dim lighting, it would be very easy for someone’s eye to create odd shapes and figures out of the gloom.
We also joked about feeling “a cold spot” — the entire mine is a cold spot!
After we exited the mine, we chatted briefly with a park attendant who told us that no one on the current staff has had any unusual experiences, but visitors have repeatedly reported seeing and hearing things down below, and also noticing odd things in photos afterward.
Speaking of photos, we should also say that trying to get a good picture in a poorly lit mine 70 feet underground without a tripod is quite a challenge! It also lends itself to taking less-than-clear images in which the more imaginative may see shapes and forms that aren’t actually there.
If You Go:Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine is currently closed for renovations. The state of Connecticut says it may not open until 2013 due to budget issues.
It is located in East Granby, about a mile north of Route 20 on (not surprisingly) Newgate Road.
When open, the grounds include a small gift shop and an exhibition hall, which was the former guardhouse.
If you are claustrophobic, be warned that the mine — which stays about 50-55 degrees year round — gets a little tight in places, and you will have to duck down a little to get through passages. It’s also all rock and fairly wet, so leave the stilletto heels at home.