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Connecticut’s Gillette Castle

By Johnny Molloy • Jul 1, 2018 at 5:00 AM

William Gillette was a genius whose passion for theater shaped not only his career, but also his outlook on life. And nowhere is it more visible than at the mansion he dubbed “The Seventh Sister” for being located on the most southerly of seven hills overlooking the Connecticut River.

Taken over then restored by the state of Connecticut, the estate was renamed Gillette Castle. Not only is the stone structure striking, the grounds are conspicuous as well, and laced with trails designed by William Gillette himself.

Some of these trails follow the miniature railroad line that the actor had on his property. Over 3 miles of track once coursed through the 184-acre property, using trestles and even a tunnel. The train was large enough to carry 28 passengers, and the world-renowned actor often entertained guests by conducting trips. Today, you can walk these railroad grades as well as other hiking trails in combination with a visit to the Gillette Castle.

Born of upper crust Connecticut lineage in 1853, William Gillette’s former senator father was not enamored of his son’s aspiration for the stage. However, sometimes our passions are too strong to ignore, despite the odds of failure and the admonitions of the stern parent. William Gillette had the acting bug from an early age. Like many erstwhile famous actors, William Gillette started in local productions, but got his break when the lead actor in a play fell ill and Gillette stepped in to the approval of audience and critics alike. His career grew wings. Fellow Connecticut resident Mark Twain recommended William Gillette for his play “The Gilded Age” in 1875. This run further cemented Gillette’s reputation and kept him in work.

Somewhere along the way, Gillette realized that if he could act, direct and even write plays, his income would rise. And that he did, continually honing his craft, even inventing sound and visual props for plays, in addition to wearing the three hats of writing, directing and acting.

However, it was his portrayal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that would make Gillette a worldwide recognized actor. Mr. Doyle, in need of money to build his own English estate, decided to generate revenue by putting his most well known character in a play, since he had killed Holmes off in the final book of his Sherlock Holmes series. Through a few twists of fate, the role of the famous detective came to William Gillette, who had wide latitude in interpreting the role.

Gillette and the play were raging successes throughout the world. Over the course of 1,300 performances and a 1916 silent movie, William Gillette fashioned the Sherlock Holmes we know today: the man of the plaid cap, the curved pipe, the magnifying glass and the studied way of speaking.

Thus we find William Gillette as a world-famous actor beginning to build his architectural masterpiece on a hill atop the Connecticut River in 1914. It took 20 full-time men five years to complete the stone structure, built on a steel framework. Not only is the outside eye-catching, intricate detail was also used on the inside, all directed by William Gillette. His use of interior windows and 47 unique doors captures the theatrical outlook that a lifetime on stage lent Gillette.

His fascination with trains was borne out by the narrow gauge track he built on the grounds. While hiking on his grounds, you can follow the old grades, as well as the hiking trails Gillette constructed. Realize that the spider web of pathways and old railroad grades avail many opportunities to create your own exploration of the grounds.Interestingly, after Mr. Gillette passed away in 1937, at the age of 83, his train was moved to an amusement park in Bristol, Connecticut. There it operated for nearly 50 years. Since then, the locomotive has been returned to the park grounds and is on display at the castle visitor center. As you will see, the locomotive was no toy train, and bigger than you might imagine.

Mr. Gillette would be pleased at the return of his locomotive to the home he called “The Seventh Sister.” Later in life, Gillette became extremely concerned about the disposition of his estate after his death. In his own words, he didn’t want it to end up in the hands of “some blithering sap who had no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” Luckily, the state of Connecticut bought the property in 1943.

Through the years, Gillette Castle has grown as a tourist attraction, and today the house — on the National Register of Historic Places — receives around 150,000 visitors annually. The castle is open for self-guided tours, with on-site personnel to answer your questions. In addition, plays are held on the grounds of Gillette Castle, check ahead for dates.

You will have to come up with your own tours of the trails at Gillette Castle. “Why it’s elementary, my dear Watson”, as Sherlock Holmes used to say. Grab a trail map at the visitor center or print one out online before you arrive. Do not try to resist touring the Gillette Castle first. The unique dwelling is fascinating inside and out. During summer, the gardens around the house are attractive and colorful.

The view from the back deck overlooking the Connecticut River and the surrounding countryside will leave no doubt that Gillette picked a prime location for his home. Stop by “Grand Central Station,” a stone station house for his train.

Walk down to the river to where the Aunt Polly docked, Gillette’s houseboat on which he lived during the construction of the castle. You can also see the Osaki House, where Gillette’s caretaker resided. The historic Hadlyme Ferry, in operation for 250 years, still crosses here at the edge of the park grounds.

By combining a visit to the castle, the trails and the river, and perhaps taking in a play, you will gain an appreciation for the genius of William Gillette. For more information: Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Road, East Haddam, CT 06423, (860) 526-2336, www.ct.gov.

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