Connecticut is full of ghosts. All old places are. You don’t have to believe in supernatural forces to notice that a certain energy remains in the spaces where people, dreams, and ventures were – and then, suddenly, were not.
The place we now call Gay City was once a mill town, known as Factory Hollow. In 1796, a handful of families (including the Gays, who later gave their name to the little settlement) moved to this spot on the Hebron-Bolton town line and built homes and a sawmill on the Blackledge River. In a deeply religious time and place, their religious zeal caused them to seek a community of their own. Not Puritans like their neighbors but Methodists, they kept to themselves. They built a woolen mill, which prospered, until the War of 1812, when it didn’t. Business picked up again, until the woolen mill burned down, but by then it was 1830, and people had begun to move away for better opportunities elsewhere. Those who stayed built a paper mill, which kept Gay City alive, until the Civil War, which claimed the lives of many young men from the small community. After that, that paper mill burned too. Gay City never recovered. It became Gay City State Park in 1944.
Today, the abandoned town is visible in the form of a few stone ruins and a tiny graveyard. But mostly, beyond the picnic tables and parking areas, the land feels wild. Trails wind through over 1500 acres of woods, and the only hints that people still maintain this space are colored blazes on the trees, wooden bridges over little rocky streams, and flowers beside the aging graves.
Gay City is magical in the fall, when the leaves glow red and bronze beside the dark water of the pond. The trails carve hollows between dense forests of green and gold, and an orange carpet of leaves softens the ground. The air smells woodsy and damp, hinting at adventure just past the next small stretch of boardwalk, or mystery beyond the next bend in the path.
They say Gay City is haunted. It always had a reputation as an odd place, where the men drank too much whiskey (or maybe it was rum) and the water flowed uphill. It was known as a dangerous place, too, where rumors of personal feuds and unsolved murders swirled. Today, visitors claim to have seen shadowy figures and heard unearthly sounds. But how could it not seem eerie to walk on dirt trails that once were the roads of a thriving town? How could a place not feel cursed, when it holds the small graves of children who died at two months, or at seven years? How can you not be troubled by carefully placed stone foundations, now overgrown with vegetation, that prove that the hardest work sometimes only leads to failure?
There is probably a good explanation as to why some of the photographs you take in Gay City State Park will come out strangely blurred, and how the man walking ahead of you on the trail can reemerge so suddenly in different parts of the park, popping up just ahead of you wherever you go. But tales of Gay City, of its ghosts and its memories, have been unusual for over 200 years. It would be a shame to start trying to explain them all now.
The entrance to Gay City State Park is on Route 85 in Hebron.
Roads to interior parking areas are open from late April to Columbus Day; in the off-season, there is a winter parking lot near the park entrance, outside the gate.
Trails are clearly marked for the most part, but a park map is useful for finding the mill ruins and other points of interest.
Check the Connecticut DEEP website for updated information.
The graveyard, not marked on the map, can be found beside the entrance road into the park.