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A Visit to Essex's Connecticut River Museum

Essex, Connecticut, is central in early American history, thanks mainly to its strategically important location.

The town sits on the Connecticut River's banks, a vein that connects Hartford and Springfield, Massachusetts, with Long Island Sound. The river also runs through Vermont and New Hampshire and even enters Canada for a short distance. Essex's location near the river's mouth, yet far enough inland to be afforded protection, made it a hub in the country's shipping industry.

However, the inland location didn't help in 1814 when Essex became one of the only American towns in history to be attacked by a foreign army. British forces snuck past lookouts in Old Saybrook and set fire to 27 ships in the town's harbor before commandeering the community and using its facilities as their own.

Today, you can visit the site where the British invaders arrived at the Connecticut River Museum. This venue allows you to learn about Essex's immense history and is a place you're sure to visit after buying a home in the area.

A Look at the Exhibits

There are three permanent exhibits at the Connecticut River Museum: On the Great River, The River That Connects Us, and The Vertical Gallery.

On the Great River looks at how communities in Connecticut have utilized this water body, starting with Native Americans before European explorers' arrival. From there, the exhibit touches on early visitors like Adriaen Block, the first European to sail up the river, and goes over the importance of the Connecticut River as a hub for West Indies trade.

Another section of the exhibit explains how David Bushnell invented the world's first submarine, called the Turtle, in nearby Old Saybrook and tested it in the river. There's even an interactive replica in the museum, which you can climb into and take a virtual dive into the water.

Finally, On the Great River looks at the British's attack in 1814 and its effect on the town in future years.

The River That Connects Us examines the Connecticut River's geography, exploring how millions of years of natural events have left us with the environment we have today. It also explains that the river has left fertile soil on its banks, which is why this part of the world is such a great place to live.

The Vertical Gallery exhibit is a vertical mural that winds through the museum's three floors and depicts all 410 miles of the river. The mural has portraits of well-known residents and shows many of the towns and landmarks that sit on its shores.

There are annual exhibits that come through every year, as well. The Eagles of Essex runs between January and March and explains why the American bald eagle's return to the region means that the river's ecosystem is healthy.

The museum hosts boat trips into the river in the winter, giving you the chance to look for an eagle from the water. The journey is aboard a 64-foot vessel called the RiverQuest, operated by Connecticut River Expeditions and featuring a heated cabin with additional space on the deck.

Starting in late November and running until the middle of February, local artist Steve Cryan brings his model trail collection to the museum. This event is popular with families around the holidays, and the exhibit is set-up differently every year to give you a reason to return annually.

Special exhibits, including art shows, are typical at the Connecticut River Museum, too, so check their schedule to see what's upcoming before you visit.

The Historic Waterfront

Stepping outside the Connecticut River Museum, you'll see green space and a boardwalk along the water. There's also a dock where you'll see a ship called the Onrust, a replica of a vessel built by Adriaen Block in 1614.

River cruises are available on the Onrust Thursdays through Sundays or by private charter. You're also free to board the ship and have a look around if you wish.

Daytime cruises are $28 each, while sunset excursions are $33. You'll want to make reservations before arrival to ensure you get a spot on the boat.

Hours and Admission

Rates at the Connecticut River Museum are surprisingly affordable, as admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $9 for students, $8 for kids between the ages of six and 12, and $2 for children under six. You can also sign up for an annual membership for $40 per individual or $65 for a family.

The museum is open from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM every day except Mondays, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Easter Sunday, and Thanksgiving. They also close a bit early on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

Part of Essex's History

With so much history in one small town, learning about Essex will take some time. The good news is that you'll discover something new about this strong community every time you head out.

Essex is full of surprises, and by visiting the Connecticut River Museum, you'll begin uncovering some of the most amazing stories of America's perfect small town.


Published December 14, 2020 in Local Information