SUMMER TRAVEL 2022 – If Sherlock Holmes was a real, live detective, what would his house look like?
Chances are, it would be the spitting image of Gillette Castle in East Haddam, Connecticut.
The castle was the brainchild of actor, playwright and director William Gillette, who was born in 1853.
Gillette wrote the first authorized play adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. He then went on to star as the legendary detective more than 1,300 times over the course of 33 years.
Built more than a century ago, Gillette Castle perches high above the Connecticut River, disguised as a sandcastle from a child’s dream. It’s quirky and asymmetrical, with small windows and imposing turrets. It looks free-range-designed without forethought — and that’s a major part of its appeal.
The castle and its grounds are part of the 122-acre Gillette Castle State Park. The grounds are open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. Castle tours are offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, May 28 through Sept. 5.
FIT FOR SHERLOCK
Construction of Gillette Castle began in 1914. The 14,000-square-foot, 24-room estate took 20 men roughly five years to complete. The house is built of local fieldstone supported by a steel framework. The residence, which had a price tag of $1.1M, was the first in the area to have electricity, and was equipped with modern plumbing and radiators.
Gillette Castle is just the kind of place you’d expect to find Sherlock Holmes hanging out. It’s dark inside, with a distinct air of mystery. There’s a secret staircase and a hand-carved bar complete with a locking mechanism designed to stump guests. Mirroring the exterior, the interior has stonework throughout, much of it set off by disconcerting red mortar. Grass mats decorate many of the walls, and the extensive woodwork is all hand-hewn white oak.
The 47 wooden doors in the castle were all designed by Gillette, each with a unique look and elaborate latching mechanism. Those doors open to an enormous living room with a soaring ceiling and imposing stone fireplace, a solarium, several guest bedrooms, an art gallery, a library and two tower rooms.
The castle’s decor is as intriguing as its structure. The dining room table and an office chair move back and forth on tracks, so as not to damage the flooring. There are built-in couches and hand-carved wooden light switches made to look like operating switches for a railroad. The place has a distinct masculine feel to it, but there are dainty glass shades — some made by Tiffany & Co. — on many of the light fixtures.
Outside the castle, visitors can take in a panoramic view of the Connecticut River from the patio or take a walk to the nearby “Grand Central’’ railroad station, which once housed Gillette’s railway cars and now serves as a picnic shelter.
Gillette, a lifelong railroad enthusiast, built his own quarter-scale, narrow gauge railroad in 1927. The setup included two engines — one steam and one electric — and several passenger cars. The trains chugged along three miles of track on the property, through the woods, across bridges and through a dark tunnel. Although the train is no longer in operation, one of Gillette’s restored locomotives can be seen in the park’s museum, located in the visitors center.
Also in the visitors center is a gift shop that offers souvenirs, clothing, books, art and more.
GROUNDS FOR EXPLORATION
Some of the hiking trails that meander through the castle’s rolling, wooded grounds follow Gillette’s railroad bed.
Hikers can walk through the old train tunnel, glimpse river views and check out the goldfish pond. One trail leads down to a spot where, from April through November, visitors can cross the Connecticut River on the historic Chester-Hadlyme Ferry.
Gillette Castle’s grounds are also a great spot for a picnic. Tables are scattered throughout the property, some in out-of-the-way places only accessible by dirt path. Visitors who prefer not to picnic can dine in the park’s Sherlock’s Grill concession area.
Gillette Castle State Park also has primitive campsites that are reserved solely for canoers and kayakers who are traveling down the Connecticut River. Arrival must be by boat. The riverside sites, which are available May 1 through Sept. 30, have capacity for 20 campers.
Gillette Castle State Park
- Location: 67 River Road, East Haddam, Conn.
- Park grounds and restrooms: Open daily, year-round, from 8 a.m. to sunset; parking and entry to the grounds is free
- Castle and visitors center: Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, May 28-Sept. 5
- Castle tours: Daily, every 15 minutes, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., May 28-Sept. 5. Maximum of 12 people in each tour group. Groups are encouraged to purchase tour tickets in advance.
- Advance tour tickets: Reserve America: https://connecticutstateparks.reserveamerica.com/tourParkDetail.do?contractCode=CT&parkId=101150
- Tour ticket prices: Adult (13+) $6; Youth (ages 6-12) $2
- Trail maps: www.gillettecastlefriends.org/park-info
- Riverside campsites for canoers and kayakers: Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance through Reserve America at www.reserveamerica.com; $5 per person, per night to camp. Stays are limited to one night. Campfires and pets are prohibited.