Colebrook has a population of just 1,520 people, spread out over 32.9 square miles. It is a place of sweeping lake views, unexplored forests, and winding roads where cell service ranges from intermittent to nonexistent. The simplicity of its rolling farmland and unadorned historic homes might lead visitors to guess that Colebrook is one of the state’s oldest towns. But in fact, it was the last town to be settled in Colonial Connecticut, with the first white residents arriving in 1765. With few businesses, and outdoor attractions that offer plenty of adventure but few, if any, amenities, Colebrook is not commonly included on the tourist to-do list. Plus, it’s far enough from Hartford, Springfield, and the small but bustling cultural centers scattered throughout Litchfield County and the Berkshires, that travelers who do find themselves here are usually on their way to somewhere else.
But if you do pass through Colebrook without stopping – or bypass it altogether – you will be missing out. The next time you’re headed somewhere in northwestern Connecticut or the adjacent regions of Massachusetts or New York, add a little stop in Colebrook to your itinerary. This remote little town might stick in your memory longer than some of those better-known destinations.
Colebrook personifies the sort of quiet, reserved New England village that feels little changed since the early 19th century. The white Greek Revival Congregational Church, set at the end of a shady town green bordered by a white fence, is a postcard version of Connecticut; it got here thanks to another typically Connecticut tradition: a years-long dispute about where, precisely, to build a meetinghouse.
The Colebrook Store (sometimes called “the oldest continually operating general store in Connecticut”), has been operating here, on and off, for centuries. It now offers breakfast and lunch as well as groceries. Long thought to have been constructed in 1812, recent research has found that the building actually dates from 1792. Almost hidden behind the iconic yellow storefront, but visible from Route 182-A, is the tiny Woodbine Cottage, which housed the original Colebrook Store.
This sort of multi-layered history is everywhere in Colebrook Center, including the diminutive white Post Office, built in 1816 and originally used by the local volunteer fire department. It stands beside the Colebrook Historical Society, housed in the old Seymour Inn, which once also served as the Town Hall.
Other Historic Sites
Beyond Colebrook Center, other historic places give a sense of life in the town’s past – which, due to its rural character and slow pace, seems not very distant from its present.
The 1779 Rock School, named for a nearby boulder, can be found at the intersection of Colebrook Road, Sandy Brook Road, and Bunnell Street. It served as a schoolhouse until 1911, and is now owned by the Colebrook Historical Society.
The First Baptist Church, a.k.a. Church in the Wildwood, also on Colebrook Road, was built in 1846 by a congregation established over 50 years earlier. The tiny white structure surrounded by tall trees has, in recent years, hosted summer vesper services led by visiting clergy.
Just up the road from the church, the Baptist Cemetery on Prock Hill Road is one of the more scenic burial grounds in a town with what feels like an inordinate number of historic cemeteries. Another one worth seeing is the Colebrook Center Cemetery, just north of Colebrook Center on Colebrook Road.
Hale Barn, at Hale’s Corner (i.e., the intersection of Route 183 And Route 182) was built in 1797. It serves as a reminder of the family-owned dairy farms that were once common sights across Connecticut. The red barn and historic property surrounding it is now owned by the Colebrook Land Conservancy, which manages the hayfields and pasture and maintains a nearby loop trail.
Colebrook River Lake
Most of Colebrook is notable for its quintessentially New England scenery, but Colebrook River Lake is worth a visit for the opposite reason: with its glassy surface ringed by wooded hills under wide open skies, it looks like something you’d find in another part of America, or possibly another country.
The lake was created when a dam was constructed on the West Branch of the Farmington River in 1969. It is managed by the US Army Corp of Engineers. The lake is known for boating and fishing, but you can also catch a glimpse of its unusual beauty as you drive along the dam (at the sign, take a right turn off Route 8/Colebrook River Road heading north.) For a much better look, drive along the Colebrook River Lake Access Road, parallel to Route 8, to reach the parking area and boat ramp. (The road is open Monday – Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; there is also a shorter, better-maintained drive leading to the parking area, also accessible from Route 8.) From there, water level permitting, you can walk up the old, abandoned Route 8 beside the lake. This erstwhile road passes the site of the village of Colebrook River, submerged as part of the flood control and hydroelectric projects that created the lake, and continues into Massachusetts. The old road begins at the northwest corner of the parking area.
Colebrook’s countryside offers something that you don’t find often in Connecticut: back roads as yet un-photographed by the Google Street View car.
Drive along Sandy Brook Road, where the water that gave the route its name flows alongside as you wend your way through the woods. Some of these woods are part of Algonquin State Forest, which covers over 2,500 rugged acres in Colebrook and neighboring Winchester. Follow the roads that lead away from Colebrook Center, like Route 182-A and Smith Hill Road. Find your own path, and along the way, look out for classic red barns, grazing horses, vintage outbuildings seemingly constructed by gnomes or faeries, large white houses with dark shutters, and fields of wildflowers (or, depending on the season, colorful leaves or fresh snow.)
As mentioned, cell service is unreliable in Colebrook. Your map app can probably guide you along Route 8 from Torrington to Winsted through Colebrook and into Massachusetts (not that you need it for this route.) But don’t depend on it if you venture into more remote areas. That means almost anywhere beyond Route 8, including Colebrook Center. If you want to explore the town, come prepared with either a map, a decent idea of where you’re going, or a love of getting lost in beautiful places.
If you’re intrigued by Colebrook River Lake, you will probably also want to check out the nearby Goodwin Dam, an impressive structure just over the town line in the Riverton section of neighboring Barkhamsted. Though it’s not technically in Colebrook, it’s very close; it’s also a very underrated scenic area. Park in the lot by the boat launch on Durst Road, and sit by the water or walk across the bridge high above the West Branch, or Hogback, Reservoir.
There are portable toilets near the parking areas of both Colebrook River Lake and Goodwin Dam.