Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine is a hidden gem in the quaint community of East Granby, Connecticut. Nestled in the hills of Newgate Road, the historic prison overlooks a scenic mountain view and is home to the Newgate Wildlife Management Area trail that is frequented by locals and visitors alike. The Visitors Center is newly renovated and the rustic New-Gate sign, coupled with the impressive enclosing wall, completes the scenic picture. Beneath the beauty of the site, however, is a deep, dark past.
New-Gate’s story begins in the early eighteenth century when the site was founded as a colonial copper mine and East Granby was still part of Simsbury. Primarily worked by German miners who received little to no compensation, portions of the mine were owned by wealthy stakeholders in Connecticut and Massachusetts (most famously Massachusetts governor Jonathan Belcher). These mining endeavors proved to be unsuccessful and not profitable. Overseers were required to follow British imperial rules and regulations. They had to send their poor quality copper ore overseas to be smelted in a still primitive process, which put a serious dent in their profits.
When it was clear the mine had failed, the colony of Connecticut purchased the Simsbury Mines in 1773 to serve as a prison. New-Gate was boasted to be an inescapable prison upon its founding. Although there was no enclosing wall at this time, prisoners were housed in the mine for twelve hours a day; the only way out was a mine shaft that descended about thirty-five feet down. Guards and the prison keeper reasoned that no man could escape such confinement. This claim was put to the test on December 22nd, 1773, when the first prisoner, John Hinson, was admitted for burglary. Hinson proved the inescapable theory wrong when he escaped only eighteen days later with the help of “evil-minded persons from without,” as the prison keeper Captain John Veits described it in a newspaper announcement of the escape. This set a pattern for New-Gate Prison’s early history. There were countless escapes (and numerous failed escape attempts), some violent, some quite clever, and others shrouded in legend. Be sure to ask a guide during your visit to tell you some escape stories!
By 1824 prisoners were no longer housed in the mine. The conditions were wet, cold, and inhumane; prisoners were given hay to sleep on and had to endure unrelenting darkness from 4 P.M. to 4 A.M., upon which time they were brought up the mine shaft and shackled for a long day’s work. A four-story cell block was constructed in an attempt to get the prison up to nineteenth-century prison reform standards, but the effort was in vain. New-Gate was condemned as a place of horrors, not reformation. The prison was closed in 1827, but not before one last tragedy. The night before the prisoners were to be transferred to the newly constructed prison in Wethersfield, Abel Starkey tried to climb up the well bucket rope to escape. The rope either broke or was cut (likely by a guard), and Starkey fell to his death.
After the closure and some failed mining ventures, New-Gate became a popular tourist attraction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Guard House in the prison yard was converted into a dance hall, live animals were brought to the site, and numerous artifacts unrelated to the mine and prison’s history were purchased by owners. The state of Connecticut acquired the site in 1968, cleaned it up, and put in a staircase to provide a safer entrance to the mine. New-Gate reopened after being closed for renovations for nine years in 2018.
The richness of New-Gate’s history is visible in every structure in the prison yard and each twist, turn, and crevice in the mine. You can take a guided tour or opt for a self-guided experience to explore the prison yard and mine at your own pace, with stationed docents at the key structures ready to answer your questions. Visitors are free to walk through the prison yard and the Guard House and are let down into the mine in small groups. A guide is stationed at the base to give visitors an introduction to the mine and tell escape stories upon request.
So, what is a tour at New-Gate like? What is there to see, hear, and learn? Much more than all words in the English language can describe. As a proud former New-Gate docent, I invite all readers to tap into their imaginations and immerse themselves in this written journey that explores my favorite spots within New-Gate.
I’ll start with the original entrance to the mine below the Guard House in the prison yard. The original thirty-five foot ladder shaft is hidden within a small stone chamber; a small black iron gate surrounds it, an iron grate covers the top, and an old wooden ladder sits within the chamber. To enter, you must crouch down, climb up onto the stone step, and step down into the space. You can peer down the hole, and sometimes you can hear voices coming up from the mine; I always encouraged visitors to envision what it was like for prisoners, who were required to climb and descend the latter wearing shackles around their wrists and ankles. It was through this shaft that John Hinson escaped in January of 1774. Legend has it that his lover lowered a bucket down this shaft and pulled him up to freedom.
Another favorite spot is the solitary confinement space, which is down in the mine. The ladder shaft is no longer used, so staff and visitors descend down the concrete steps the state of Connecticut installed in the 1970s. If you’re visiting on a warm summer day, once you get halfway down the stairs your glasses will fog from the temperature change; the mine stays a brisk 52 degrees all year round! At the bottom of the stairs the ground shifts from concrete to the dark, wet mine surface. You hear voices echoing through the caverns and small drops of water falling from the ceiling; you will most definitely feel a few hit your head or shoulders (and when you come back up, always check your sleeves for copper residue!). To get to solitary you pass the well that Abel Starkey tried to escape through and the spot where his body was found. Solitary is a hollowed out cavern a few strides from the well. Supposedly, if you stand in a certain spot within the cavern and whistle, it can be heard throughout the whole mine. After climbing over the deep puddles of water that guard the cavern, you will find a small stone ledge with holes in it, which anchored the prisoner’s wrist and ankle shackles. And if you look closely, you can see a prisoner condemned to solitary carved his initials into the stone. It is in this space that I reflect upon the horrors prisoners at New-Gate faced.
To me, the best place in the entire prison is just outside the chamber that contains the original ladder shaft. It is here that you can peer beyond the uneven prison stone wall and bask in the foliage, mountains, and open sky that lie beyond New-Gate’s blackened past. In the fall, newly turned leaves paint the landscape bright reds, oranges, and yellows. And at dusk, the sun sets just over the mountain peaks. While it provides museum staff and visitors solace, it likely planted the seed of escape in the minds of the prisoners. Everyday while laboring in the prison yard, prisoners beheld what life was like outside New-Gate’s tortuous four walls.
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Sam Dinnie is an undergraduate student at Western New England University majoring in History. Under the supervision of Dr. Jonathan Beagle, they are writing a senior thesis on Revolutionary patriot Joseph Hawley. Sam’s research analyzes Hawley’s significance in his own time and the role his memory played in the early republic. They interned at the Connecticut State Historic Preservation office and volunteered as a docent at Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine in East Granby, CT. Sam is now a research associate at Connecticut Landmarks and works on interpretation, public programming, and social media alongside research projects. They recently received the NEMA Board Diversity Fellowship and are a co-founder of the newly formed LGBTQ+ Museum Staff and Students group, which aims to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ museum staff and students to network, make connections, and find mutual support.