EAST GRANBY, Conn. - It is a cruel irony: The bucolic setting overlooking the Farmington Valley and blue-gray Litchfield Hills once housed a Colonial-era prison where inmates slept on straw, 70 feet underground in an abandoned copper mine. By day they labored above ground making nails, whiskey barrels, shoes, wagon wheels, and farming tools.
Named after a prison in London known for its harsh living conditions, Old New Gate Prison and Copper Mine nonetheless became a model for other US lockups. Before the prison opened in 1773, criminals were usually punished by beatings and torture, said Lance Kozikowski, a museum assistant. The idea that the greatest punishment was taking away a person's freedom was revolutionary.
The Simsbury Copper Mine, chartered in 1707, was the first in the colonies, Kozikowski said. Mining ceased in 1742, and in 1773 the Colony of Connecticut began to use the abandoned tunnels as a prison.
Closed as a prison in 1827, Old New Gate has been primarily a tourist attraction since the late 1800s. In the 1930s the guard house was converted into a dance hall and nightclub. The state acquired the site in 1968, rehabbed the mine, and opened it as a museum. In 1973 it was designated a national historic landmark by the National Park Service, and in 2001 it was named a state archeological preserve.
"This is one of very few places in New England where you can go underground and be 70-plus feet under solid rock," Kozikowski said. "You really get a sense of what it was like to be a prisoner here."
Displays in the guard house describe the evolution of attitudes toward crime and punishment, from crimes against God and religion to crimes against fellow men, such as theft and burglary. During the Revolutionary War, showing support for the British became a crime, and many British loyalists, or Tories, were incarcerated at New Gate.
Today the site is eerily overgrown with grass and huge trees, their branches overhanging remnants of thick brick walls and poking through barred windows. The soft rustle of leaves and birdsong fill the old prison yard, enclosed by a 12-foot-high sandstone wall built by prisoners in 1802.
The mine's temperature is a constant 52 degrees year-round, making it a welcome diversion in summer. The tunnels are sharp-edged, and the gray rock walls are still marked with the gleaming green swaths that indicate the presence of copper.
For many petty criminals, the prison was a safe haven, Kozikowski said, providing shelter, food, and meaningful work. But it was a gruesome place to live: dark, chilly, and wet. In a barred cubbyhole that held prisoners in solitary confinement, there is a metal chain welded to a boulder, and a set of initials is still visible carved into the rock wall.
The site will celebrate Halloween with the Fourth Annual All Hallows Eve Weekend Oct. 27 and 28 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day. This "mildly scary" event is designed for children 8 and older, who are encouraged to come in costume. It features guided tours through the mine past tableaux based on stories, such as that of Abel Starkey, who tried to escape by climbing up the rope in the well shaft but fell to his death when the rope broke, still clutching the bag of coins he intended to use to pay off the guard.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.