First, some facts: Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine in East Granby was North America’s first copper mine, chartered in what was then Simsbury in 1707. In 1773 it became Connecticut’s – some say America’s – first prison. Initially, convicts were simply locked inside the mine, 75 feet below the surface and where the temperature perpetually rests at 55 degrees. But eventually they were put to work, both in the mine and in workshops above ground. The mine proved unprofitable, and the General Assembly, concerned about this in addition to unsanitary conditions and other issues at the prison, shut it down in 1827. The site was purchased by the state in 1968 and opened as a state museum, but closed to the public due to lack of funds in 2009. It reopened in 2018.
During that 9-year period, I would sometimes find myself driving past the site and wondering what lay beyond its imposing perimeter wall. Even from the road, it was clear that this massive, partially-toppled brick structure,set amid a lush rugged wilderness, looked like nothing else in the state. Once the museum opened up again, it took me a while to get there, but I finally got to check out Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine a few weeks ago.
The remains of the prison resemble an ancient ruin, with a ruin’s ironic sense of peace. But this was a brutal place, housing up to 100 prisoners at a time – mostly men, and a few women as well – who were treated in ways that even then were condemned as inhumane. Some inmates at New-Gate were dangerous criminals; others had been convicted of relatively minor offenses; and during the Revolutionary War, Tories were locked up here as well. Around them loomed that 12-foot tall perimeter wall I’d seen when driving by, and beyond it the tree-covered hills.
Given how harsh the reality of New-Gate was, the museum experience is disconcertingly quirky, even fun. There’s a whipping-post standing in the yard and beside it an adorable period drawing of a man being whipped. There are creatively presented facts, tailored to grab the attention of kids, about the numerous bat species that live here. There’s also a gift shop, which sells a variety of local history books (mostly on the more entertaining side), bat-themed merchandise, and Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine branded mugs and T-shirts.
The mix of disturbing history and frivolity isn’t new; it’s been this way since tourism began here, back in the 1870s, with candlelit mine tours. The historic home across the street, which had belonged to New-Gate’s first prison keeper, was converted into a tourist hotel. Today, there’s a jukebox in the corner of the guardhouse, a reminder that in the 1920s, the space was used as a dance hall. (It also featured a caged bear and a wax figure of Buffalo Bill, and the fee to attend a dance included a mine tour.)
A visit to New-Gate can be as educational as you make it. You can walk the grounds and enter the guardhouse and a few bleak stone cells, exploring on your own or following the interpretive panels throughout the site. (The history, though sobering, is dramatic. For instance: New-Gate was constantly plagued by escapes and escape attempts. The very first man to be imprisoned here climbed out through the ore shaft days later, and on the last night before New-Gate was shut down and its inmates transferred elsewhere, another prisoner attempted to escape via the well; he drowned.) You can also wait for one of the regularly scheduled guided tours and venture down into the mine. But if you’re not in the mood to stop at every sign or to take a tour, I recommend reading a little about New-Gate’s past before – or even after – you visit. This way, you can enjoy the site’s visual appeal and quirkiness without missing its historical significance.
However you approach it, Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine is a fascinating place, and one that, in almost any other state, would be hyped up much more. Given the raw material of preserved prison buildings, lush hills, historic firsts, bats, and dramatic stories of cruel conditions and desperate escapes, most states would turn Old New-Gate into a serious lesson on prison reform or a spooky theme park adventure. Connecticut, predictably, does neither, so what you take from this unique attraction is up to you.
Address: 115 Newgate Road, East Granby, CT, 06026
Website: Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine
Parking is free.
The museum is open seasonally. See website for updated hours and admission information.