When you step into the Essex train station in Connecticut, you feel a bit like you are stepping back in time. Tiny droplets of water fall on your face as you watch the engine slowly start to move down the tracks, steam clouding the air around you invoking memories of films and mysterious strangers waiting on platforms for loved ones or patiently awaiting their escape to the big city. ┬áThe loud call of the train’s whistle puts smiles of delight on young children’s faces, as families, friends, couples, and train enthusiasts make their way down the platform to board the Essex Steam Train.

We were there to meet up with family members spending the weekend in Mystic, CT and join them for a day of exploration and “leaf peeping.” I recently wrote about the Essex Steam Train as one of 10 Ways to Enjoy Fall Foliage in the Northeast, while my brother had come up with the same idea (great minds think alike, right?) As we joined them on the platform, I felt a bit like we were about to board Hogwart’s Express and I should have brought along some Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

The Essex Steam Train offers a number of different ride options, depending on your interests, activity level, and time you have available. The basic steam train experience is one-hour long, with a couple of stops along the way to let passengers embark or disembark. You can also take a 2.5 hour steam train and riverboat tour, which combines the train with a 1 1/4 hour trip on the Becky Thatcher, a triple-deck, Mississippi-style riverboat that offers sails through the Connecticut River Valley. We signed up for the third option, which includes a side excursion to Gillette Castle with a half hour train ride up and a half hour back.

Essex Steam Train in CT

You also have a choice of where you want to sit on the train. Most passengers opt for the standard coach cars, which are tall, closed window cars with cushioned bench seats. Believe it or not, you have to pay $7 extra to sit in the open window car with hard wooden bench seats. I guess the joy of getting steam and soot on your clothing is worth it. You can also take the luxury, first class route with plush swivels seats and cash beverage service. On the first full weekend of each month, they also hook up an old caboose and you can pay $5 extra for one of the few seats in the last car. To be honest, the train ride is fairly short (less than 30 minutes each way), so it really doesn’t make a big difference where you sit. Since we were taking the “Gillette Castle Connection,” we were seated in the last coach car on the ride north and given the opportunity to sit in the open air car (for free!) on the return trip.

Essex Train Station in CT

The train trip is fairly slow and, while it seems short, I don’t think you’d want to go much further at that speed unless you were quite the train enthusiast. We found it just the right amount of time. On the trip north, they invoked the old-time spirit by having newsies passing out replica newspapers from the 1930s, which gave you something to read along the way. The conductor also served as a naturalist, pointing out the woodlands and wetland areas we were passing through and sharing some of the wildlife typically found there. Before we knew it, we had reached the end of the line. The train then reversed just a short distance down the track to our first stop, the Hadlyme Flagstop.

Essex Steam Train in CT

Essex Steam Train in CT

Riding the Essex Steam Train

After disembarking, the large group of us who were taking the castle connection walked down the road to the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry boat, with strict instructions to be back at the station stop in three hours to catch the first of two return trains. We joined the line of cars waiting to cross by walking aboard the small Selden III. Once everyone was boarded, it was a short five minute ride across the Connecticut River, barely enough time for them to walk around about collect our $2 per adult round trip fare.

Chester Hadlyme Ferry in CT

View of the Chester Hadlyme Ferry from Gillette Castle

When we arrived at the other side, it was a fairly easy 3/8-mile hike up a path to the Gillette Castle. At first I wondered how on earth we were going to fill three hours here (and where I was going to go to the bathroom and/or find something to eat), but that turned out to be not a problem at all. In fact, we were a bit concerned the ferry wasn’t going to get us back in time to meet our 2:25pm train (plus there are bathrooms and a cafe at the visitor’s center.)

Hiking up to Gillette Castle from the Chester Hadlyme Ferry

When we first approached the Gillette Castle, once home to William Gillette, an actor and stage manager made famous for portraying Sherlock Holmes onstage, I thought it looked like a crumbling gothic fortress, well-suited for a haunted house. The stone fortress looks as if it had giant teeth over the windows. And, while the eccentricity continued inside, the gothic appearance was only on the exterior. The castle is part of Gillette State Park, which can also be accessed by land and welcomes over 300,000 visitors annually with a museum, hiking trails, picnic grounds, and seasonal theatrical celebrations.

Gillette Castle in CT

To tour the castle, you need to purchase tickets ($6 for adults, $2 for children 6-12) at the visitor center, where you can also watch a short film and view some exhibits. We were welcomed into the dark castle at the side door and it felt a bit like being drawn into a creepy dungeon. Our greeter told us a bit about the construction of the castle, and demonstrated the fascinating, hand designed and carved wooden doors that use a complex interlocking mechanism that still operate today. We saw many more examples of these doors as we moved upstairs. The tour is self guided but there are docents strategically placed throughout the structure, as well as the expected descriptive placards. Once we got into the main room, the castle took on more of an air of a hunting lodge than Frankenstein’s castle, with rock walls and hand carved wood beams.

Gillette Castle in CT

Inside the Gillette Castle in CT

William Gillette was definitely an interesting character who seemed to take on some of the eccentricities of his onstage persona, Sherlock Holmes. He installed a trick lock to his bar and, after inviting guests to help themselves to a drink, would retire upstairs and watch them through a strategically placed mirror as they struggled to find a way into the alcohol cabinet. After touring the rooms downstairs and up, along with an art gallery, you exited the building in the small garden patio, with magnificent views of the Connecticut River, lined with trees just starting to show their fall colors.

We3Travel at Gillette Castle in CT

By this time we were hungry and sought out the cafe at the visitor’s center to fill the last half hour before walking down to catch a return ferry that runs constantly throughout the day. Unfortunately, a better idea would have been to bring a picnic lunch and take advantage of the huge terrace and picnic tables overlooking the castle and the valley, since the cafe was short staffed and after waiting at least 30 minutes for our order, we gave up and started our hike down to the river. We made it back to the train stop with a few minutes to spare, although I’d recommend giving yourself a bit more of a time cushion, just in case the train shows up on time. It took us approximately 30 minutes to make it from the castle back to the train stop.

Waiting for the Essex Steam Train in CT

On our return ride in the open car, the conductor kept everyone entertained with a scavenger hunt, encouraging passengers to find landmarks along the route. After a short stop to drop off and pick up passengers taking the riverboat, we were back at Essex Station. They do a good job of luring you into the gift shop with a promise for a free treat for kids under 12 (a plastic train whistle.)

Deep River Landing Riverboat landing

The Essex Steam Train is located at 1 Railroad Avenue in Essex, CT, in between New Haven and New London near the CT coastline. Trains run from May through October, with seasonal schedules. Tickets vary depending on which tour and seat you choose, but our Gillette Castle Connection was $10 per child and $18 per adult. They also offer many family-friendly special train rides including a Day Out with Thomas & Friends in April and May, The Valley Railroad Circus Train and Big Top Show in July, Fall Foliage rides in October, the Santa Special in November and December, and the North Pole Express, a nighttime ride also in November and December. The Essex Steam Train makes a perfect add-on to a trip to Mystic or Central Connecticut. If you are looking for a place to eat nearby once you get off the train, try Oliver’s Tavern, just a 1/2 mile away from the train station.

Riding the Essex Steam Train in CT

 

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