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A Tank Away

River towns’ swinging connection

Old-time bridge makes cars (and time) stand still

The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., with the town’s nearly 100-year-old “swing bridge’’ over the Connecticut River behind it. The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., with the town’s nearly 100-year-old “swing bridge’’ over the Connecticut River behind it.
By Ellen Albanese
Globe Correspondent / August 10, 2011

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EAST HADDAM, Conn. -- The Connecticut River divides East Haddam and Haddam, and crossing that divide is one of the most charming elements of a visit to these neighboring towns. Next to the Goodspeed Opera House, the 881-foot East Haddam “swing bridge’’ carries automobile traffic, most of the time. And then there are the times when the section pivots horizontally on a vertical support to allow river traffic to pass on either side. Built in 1913, it’s said to be the longest bridge of its type in the world. To experience another of the area’s distinctive modes of river transport, you will have to hurry. Due to state budget cuts, the Chester-Hadlyme car ferry, which conveys passengers and automobiles from Chester to East Haddam, is slated to suspend service at the end of this month. Both bridge and ferry represent the kind of quaint, old-fashioned appeal that makes the two small towns an attractive destination for couples, with or without children in tow.

STAY

Families can choose from dozens of activities at Wolf’s Den Campground (256 Town St., East Haddam, 860-873-9681, www.wolfsdencampground.com, $43 per night, higher on holiday weekends), including swimming in a 60-foot L-shaped pool, fishing, and miniature golf. The 209 sites for tents and RVs are equipped with water, electricity, cable television, picnic tables, and fireplaces. In the tiny center of East Haddam, a stone’s throw from the river and the opera house, two historic bed-and-breakfasts are across the street from each other. Bishopsgate Inn (7 Norwich Road, 860-873-1677, www.bishopsgate.com, $145-$220) was built in 1818 by Horace Hayden, a merchant and shipbuilder. At the Boardman House B&B (8 Norwich Road, 860-873-9233, www.boardmanhouse.com, $195-$295), the three guest rooms feature king beds and porches. Across the river in the Haddam Historic District, the Nehemiah Brainerd House B&B, 988 Saybrook Road, 860-345-8605, www.brainerdhousebb.com, $140-$178, private cottage $275) sits on 5 acres on a bluff high above the river.

DINE

Built in 1736 by Jabez Chapman, the Gelston House (8 Main St., East Haddam, 860-873-1411, www.gelstonhouse.com, lunch $9.50-$22, dinner $18-$32) features a formal dining room and a sprawling outdoor patio overlooking the river. Now owned by the Goodspeed Opera House Foundation, the Gelston House also has a tavern and four guest rooms. At Italian restaurants, you expect pizza to come in small and large, but at La Vita Gustosa (9 Main St., East Haddam, 860-873-8999, www.lavitagustosa.com, $8-$25) you can order nearly any dish on the menu in two sizes, a nice option for smaller appetites. Eggplant rollatini is especially popular, according to our waitress. Big rolls of paper towels on every table tell the story at Hilltop Barbecue and Steakhouse (2 Rae Palmer Road, 860-873-1234, www.hilltopbbqsteakhouse.com, $8-$26) in the Moodus section of East Haddam. All meat is smoked on-site; ribs, brisket, and pulled pork are the signature items. A Connecticut-style lobster roll, served warm and drenched in butter, is the specialty of the house at the Blue Oar (16 Snyder Road, 860-345-2994, lunch $7-$16, dinner $7-$26) at the Midway Marina in Haddam. Sit inside or out at brightly painted tables, bring your own alcoholic beverages, and leave the credit cards at home.

DURING THE DAY

Everyone will be charmed by the quirky and fun Gillette Castle (67 River Road, East Haddam, 860-526-2336, www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?A=2716&;Q=325204, $6 adults, $2 children). Set on a 184-acre property that is now a state park, the stone castle was the home of William Gillette (1853-1937), an actor (best known for his portrayals of Sherlock Holmes), inventor, and train buff. Friendly docents will point out Gillette’s ingenious devices, such as a mirror he used to see who was entering the castle and a lever over his bed that allowed him to turn out the lights without getting up. For a different perspective on the castle and other landmarks, take a RiverQuest cruise from Eagle Landing State Park (860-662-0577, www.ctriverexpeditions.org, adults $20, children $15). Narrated public cruises run daily in season, and sunset cruises are offered most evenings. Life in the 21st century will look pretty good to the children after a visit to the Nathan Hale School House (29 Main St., behind St. Stephen’s Church, East Haddam, 860-873-3399, connecticutsar.org/sites/east-haddam.html) and the Thankful Arnold House (14 Hayden Hill Road, Haddam, 860-345-2400, www.haddamhistory.org, adults $4, children $2). Nathan Hale, Connecticut Revolutionary War hero, served as schoolmaster at the one-room schoolhouse from 1773 to 1774. At the 1794 Arnold House, 10 children shared a bedroom; modern children can try to figure out how to use a variety of wooden toys from the period, such as Jacob’s ladder and “the graces,’’ a hoop game. Hours vary seasonally at both sites, so call first. Bisected by the Eight Mile River, the 860-acre Devil’s Hopyard State Park (Hopyard Road, East Haddam, 860-873-8566, www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2716&;q=325188) features trout fishing, picnic areas, 15 miles of hiking trails and Chapman Falls, which drops 60 feet in three main cascades. The potholes at the base of the falls are said to be the hoof prints left by the devil as he hopped from ledge to ledge to keep dry.

AFTER DARK

The towns offer rich possibilities for entertainment during the day but the options are fewer after the sun sets. Built in 1876 for William H. Goodspeed, ship builder, merchant, banker, and theater lover, the Goodspeed Opera House (6 Main St., East Haddam, 860-873- 8668, www.goodspeed.org) produces three musicals each season between April and December. “Show Boat’’ has been extended to Sept. 17, and “City of Angels’’ opens Sept. 23. Tours of the Opera House ($5 for adults, $1 for children under 12) are conducted June through October on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Ellen Albanese may be reached at ellen.albanese@gmail.com.