In modern times, the Connecticut coast conjures up visions of seafood shacks and sailboats, striped umbrellas and sunshine, hurricanes and historic beach houses clustered along the shore. But once, not as long ago as it seems, this shoreline had another concern. Facing outward towards the world, with its many rivers and harbors, it was open to exploration – and to invaders. It was vulnerable, and had to be defended.
Over the centuries, people living along Connecticut’s coastline have fought to protect it, building different types of fortifications at strategic points along the shore. Today, three of these forts remain, in various states of restoration, and help tell the stories of the past. Beyond their rich and layered history, they are also fascinating destinations to explore, full of open spaces to roam and secret corners to discover.
Fort Trumbull, New London
The first Fort Trumbull dates from the Revolutionary War. When the traitor Benedict Arnold returned to his home state at the head of a large British and Loyalist force, his devastating raid began here. After quickly overpowering the few defenders of Fort Trumbull, Arnold’s troops burned much of New London, a memory that lingers in the city even now. The second Fort Trumbull escaped the War of 1812 unscathed. The grand Egyptian Revival style fort we see today is the third Fort Trumbull to stand on this promontory above the Thames River. Built in the mid-19th century to guard New London Harbor from another British attack, it would instead be used as a recruiting and training post for the Union Army in the Civil War. (The Mark Twain short story A Curious Experience is set here during this period.) After that, it would serve as the first U.S. Coast Guard Academy; a Coast Guard base in the pursuit of Prohibition-era rum runners on Long Island Sound; the U. S. Maritime Service Officer Candidate School; and a campus of the University of Connecticut. As early as WWI, it was also being used as a top-secret research center developing technology to detect enemy submarines. This facility, which eventually came to be known as the U.S. Navy Underwater Sound Laboratory, closed in the late 1990s, and Fort Trumbull State Park officially opened in 2000.
Fort Trumbull is a carefully preserved historic site, but it’s also a popular urban park. As the most intact and well-maintained of the forts in this post, it’s the one to visit if you want a scenic walk close to city amenities. It’s also the longest-lived of the three, with centuries of Connecticut military history packed into a relatively compact site. The massive granite fort surrounded by sloping green lawns gives the site an imposing atmosphere, but the paved walking paths and attractive fishing pier make this a welcoming place for all. The occasional sight of the Coast Guard Academy’s training barque Eagle, and the presence of the Electric Boat facility across the river, are reminders that though this area is steeped in history, it has never stopped playing a role in America’s defense.
The interior of the fort, as well as the impressive museum inside the multi-story Visitor Center, are open seasonally (in normal times) and well worth visiting when you can. But even in the off-season – or in decidedly abnormal times – the grounds are open daily, providing a public open space that’s an attraction in itself. Wander around the fort’s walls, reading the markers placed throughout the site to learn about the various buildings and areas you pass. Take in the views from the top of the hill, and walk the length of the pier. You can stroll for an hour then rest for another on a bench in the sun, but a quick half-hour visit is enough to see everything, from the Civil War-era cannons on the South Battery to the old barracks and parade ground to the sturdy 1786 blockhouse, the oldest structure on the site and the only remaining relic of America’s First System of fortifications, constructed in the years following Independence.
Fort Griswold, Groton
Fort Griswold was built in 1775 and continued to be used for various purposes by the U.S. military throughout the turn of the 19th century. But today, the site is known for the events of a single day: September 6, 1781, the day of Benedict Arnold’s raid. After gaining control of Fort Trumbull and torching downtown New London, the British demanded the surrender of the Americans at Fort Griswold on the Groton side. Their commander, Colonel William Ledyard, refused. Thus began the Battle of Groton Heights, in which several British officers were killed and fighting raged fiercely until the fort was overrun and Ledyard finally admitted defeat. Then, the story goes, he was killed with his own sword by the British officer to whom he had presented it in an act of surrender. Arnold’s forces massacred over 80 of the American defenders of the fort and wounded dozens more. Those who could walk were loaded onto a British prison ship, and Groton was plundered. Fort Griswold was turned over to the state of Connecticut in 1903; fifty years later, it became Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park.
Though there’s a lot to see at Fort Griswold – from museum exhibits to historic buildings to memorials – it feels in some ways like the wildest of the three sites listed here. Perhaps it’s the hilly, grassy landscape, with sweeping views from the highest point down to the Battery and the Thames below. Or perhaps it’s the way the narrow, unpaved paths snake around the shaggy earthworks, leading to the stone-lined tunnels where soldiers once took cover from enemy fire. Visually, this is a place unlike any other in the state. Fort Griswold is rarely crowded, and because it’s home to panoramic vistas and the memory of one of Connecticut’s most tragic wartime incidents, this is the site to visit if you’re seeking solitude and drama.
When indoor museums are open, visitors to Fort Griswold can peruse the historic artifacts at the small Monument House Museum and climb the 166 steps of the Groton Monument, the 135-foot granite obelisk that’s visible from Fort Trumbull. The c. 1760 Ebenezer Avery House at the foot of the hill, where wounded Americans were brought after the battle, has also been preserved as a museum. But even when these are closed, Fort Griswold is a special place, and like Fort Trumbull, its grounds are always worth visiting. This park, situated between the busy river and a sedate neighborhood, somehow manages to feel remote and rugged. Climb the hill and wander around the batteries and earthworks, past the sally port and Covered Way. The 1843 shot furnace, where cannonballs were heated to inflict maximum fiery damage, is a striking little structure, especially beside the equally diminutive powder magazine, built in the same year. Throughout the site, memorial plaques pay tribute to fallen soldiers from both sides. As you explore, look out for the unexpected, like a cannon from the Spanish-American War or the Avery House’s fragrant garden.
Fort Nathan Hale (Black Rock Fort), New Haven
Black Rock Fort was built in 1776, on the site of an earlier, unnamed fortification, to protect New Haven’s port. Three years later, British forces attacked and overpowered the fort’s 19 defenders before marching to New Haven, seizing or destroying public stores, and ships and burning several houses. (This was the start of Tryon’s raid, in which Fairfield and Norwalk were subsequently destroyed.) In 1807, anticipating what would be the War of 1812, a new, larger fort named Fort Nathan Hale was built on the site. It fared better than its predecessor had in 1779, as the Americans within it successfully held off British troops. Another Fort Nathan Hale was built in 1863, beside what remained of the older one, just in time for a Southern invasion that never came. In 1921, this unused fort was handed over to the state of Connecticut, and then to the city, which turned it into a recreation area. Following the damage of the 1938 Hurricane, which wreaked havoc all along the New England coast, the property again fell into disuse. Both forts were restored for the American bicentennial in 1976, and today, Fort Nathan Hale is one of a string of parks that take advantage of the beauty of New Haven’s coastline.
Of the three sites in this post, Fort Nathan Hale is the most humble. It’s not a state park, it’s not home to impressive structures or grand monuments, and though it’s named for Connecticut’s state hero, it was not the site of a famous battle. But of the three, it is the most surprising, and arguably the most rewarding if you enjoy urban exploration and discovering those often-overlooked historic memories that lurk at the edges of cities. This is a fascinating and unpredictable park in which to wander. Another major selling point: it’s the only one of the forts that’s set right on a beach, making it feel less protected – and therefore much more of an adventure.
Black Rock Fort, now a simple wooden reconstruction with a commemorative cannon, stands on a slightly elevated point of land that juts out into New Haven Harbor. To reach it, walk through the park, past the circular Memorial Flag Court, over the restored Civil War-era drawbridge, and through the grassy area where the remains of the later Fort Nathan Hale form hills and hiding places. From here, a sandy path leads through the foliage onto a narrow strip of forgotten-looking beach, which tapers to its end at the effectively bare-bones restoration. Limited signage throughout the park provides dates and basic facts, but this is really a site where imagination rules. While you’re here, don’t miss the recently improved fishing pier at the other end of the small beach. This area is far more polished, with plenty of benches along the wide, T-shaped pier to sit and watch the seagulls swoop overhead.
As always when traveling, check the websites and social media accounts for individual parks to make sure you have updated information on hours, closures, restrictions, and fees.
Address: 90 Walbach Street, New London, CT, 06320
Admission: Grounds and parking are free. Visitor Center admission and fort tours cost $6 for age 13+ and $2 for ages 6-12.
Address: Park Avenue and Monument Street, Groton, CT, 06340
Fort Nathan Hale
Address: 36 Woodward Ave, New Haven, CT, 06512
Website: Fort Nathan Hale
Also worth noting: Fort Trumbull and Fort Griswold can easily be visited in one day, and both are both part of the Thames River Heritage Park.