Want to visit a really cool place this summer? Then pay a visit to the newly reopened and updated Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine in East Granby, Connecticut. The year round temperature in the former underground prison and copper mine is a refreshing 52 degrees. This facility has been known as many things…the first chartered copper mine, the first state prison, a “school of rogues,” a National Historic Landmark, and a place where prisoners managed to escape from on a seemingly regular basis! A recent visit to the site revealed visitors of all ages enjoying this unique tourist attraction, from the self-guided tours of the yards and buildings, to the guided underground tour of the mine, the bucolic setting complete with picnic tables, and the small but well stocked gift shop. A display table of colorful rock and mineral samples (at rock bottom prices) enthralled the youngest visitors, as did the collection of books and toy bats that recall the mammals that still frequent the mines during their winter hibernation.
According to Morgan Bengel, the museum’s curator and site manager, “We are really excited to be welcoming visitors again…this site is a unique cultural asset that allows visitors to explore timeless stories of those who have been incarcerated here, viewed with both an historic and modern lens.” She added, “We have installed new interpretive panels in the prison yard and the grounds beyond the prison walls. They…help interpret the ruins and structures on the site.”
They have also added the Connecticut Hall of Change (https://www.cthallofchange.org/) which is a place to recognize and honor formerly incarcerated men and women who have made a great positive impact in their communities.
The prison was originally a copper mine, which operated on and off from about 1705 to the 1750’s, mostly unsuccessfully. In 1773, the North American colonists decided to use the site of the copper mine as a prison, and a “trial and error” period ensued. The goal of the prison was to “securely confine, profitably employ, and reform…” the prisoners, who consisted of horse thieves, robbers, counterfeiters, and, of course, Loyalists! An overseer’s report, dated 1773 stated that, “We have been appointed to explore the copper mines and determined, ‘…whether they may be beneficially applied to the purpose of confining, Securing and profitably employing Such Criminals and Delinquents as may be Committed to them by future Law or Laws in lieu of the infamous punishments…’ ”
The first warden was Captain John Viets, a member of the militia. Conditions in the mines, and therefore the prison, were dark and rocky, the temperature hovered at 52 degrees, and the deepest parts of the tunnels were 75’ underground. It was described by former prisoners as “secure but inhumane,” with stories of starvation, filthy conditions, and shackles that wore away the skin. The youngest prisoners were only 14 years old. It is questionable as to how secure the prison actually was in its early years, since within its first year of operation, the following Overseer’s Report (1774) was submitted: “Your honors must have heard that the prisoners have all escaped… it would be long and perhaps difficult in writing to give a particular and distinct account how this was done: your honors will excuse us if we only say that they effected their escape by the help of evil minded persons abroad before the necessary and proper securities could be completed.” (Overseers Report, 1774)
The first prisoner of record was 20 year old John Hinson, convicted of robbery and sentenced to 10 years. He was imprisoned on December 22, 1773 and escaped on January 9, 1774, after all of 19 days! He escaped in the middle of the night, most likely with some outside help.
The last escape attempt before the prison closed in 1827 was by Abel Starkey, a counterfeiter who fell to his death during the attempt. It is rumored that he had amassed $100.00 while in prison (equivalent to over $2,000 today) but had only $50.00 in his possession when his body was recovered. Possibly, he used the rest to bribe someone to leave the hatch door leading to freedom open. It is even rumored that his ghost wanders the tunnels of the mine today! The day after Starkey’s death, New-Gate Prison was closed and the inmates were transferred to Wethersfield.
Today, the site’s brochure states that “a 12 foot high masonry perimeter wall encompasses the one-acre prison yard, featuring a rehabilitated two-story guardhouse, the standing ruins of four other buildings …and the entrance to the underground copper mine. The dank mine tunnels, menacing perimeter walls, and hulking prison ruins still convey an environment of confinement and awe.” It is highly recommended that you wear sturdy and non-slip shoes for the underground tour, which is chilly and damp. Bring a picnic lunch and make a day of it! There are restrooms available in the museum.
OLD NEW-GATE PRISON & COPPER MINDE IS LOCATED AT 115 NEWGATE ROAD, EAST GRANBY, CT
Contact Morgan Bengel at 860-655-1591 or Morgan.Bengel@ct.gov
Museum Hours are Friday through Monday from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm and on Thursdays from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm
Adult tickets are $10 with discounts for seniors and youth. Active military, veterans and teachers are free