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Newgate Prison

If you travel on CT Route 20 to East Granby and turn onto Newgate Road you will come to the tourist attraction as Old Newgate Prison Museum. The road passes through the center of the complex with stonewalls to your left and the still standing Viets Tavern on your right. For those brave enough there can be explorations from May through October of the dark caverns and tunnels that served first as a copper mine and then a notorius prison. It is difficult to imagine as one passes the site, which now resembles an ancient fort nestled in verdant landscape, the severe uses of the site.

It was in December 1705, when East Granby was an area of Simsbury known as the Turkey Hills that a report was made to the Simsbury selectmen that a silver or copper mine had been found within the limits of the township. By 1707 people listed on the 1706 tax list of Simsbury were allowed to participate in the mining venture. Sixty-four taxpayers became proprietors of the mines and were not allowed to dispose of their shares to non-residents without the consent of the others. One tenth of the profits from the mining venture were to be used for "pious purposes" which translated into two-thirds of that for a schoolmaster for the town and the other third to support the school that would become Yale. The area became known as Copper Hill and the mine, the first chartered copper mine in America.

Ore from the mine was shipped to Boston and England to be refined as well as being smelted locally. Until 1772, the mine passed through a series of owners and mining syndicates. In that year the lease was purchased by James Holmes of Salisbury, Connecticut a town known for its iron furnaces. In May 1773, the Connecticut General Assembly began looking at using the less than financially successful mine to house prisoners in an atmosphere where escape would be impossible. They purchased the remainder of Holmes' lease and created an underground room 15 by 12 feet with a new iron gate at the top of the shaft, which led to it.

The name of the new colonial prison eventually became New Gate (the preferred spelling at that time) and its first keeper was Capt. John Viets. Along with overseers Major Erastus Wolcott, Capt. Josiah Bissel and Col. Jonathan Humphrey, he tended criminals who had committed burglary, counterfeiting, highway robbery or horse stealing and were compelled to perform hard labor. They continued to mine ore. As the American Revolution heated up they were joined by British loyalists, British soldiers and court-martialed Continental soldiers. While no well-known Tories were held here, New Gate became notorious in England for the underground conditions of dampness, vermin, insects and darkness.

As more prisoners were incarcerated, the need for punitive work expanded their hard labor to include making hand wrought nails. Buildings such as guardhouses and workshops were added on the surface. The remains of many of them are still visible today. Now prisoners came to the surface at 4 AM to begin their daily toil in the workhouse while their underground accommodations remained about 50 degrees year round. Escapes were frequent but prisoners' clothing of mismatched socks and shoes were easily identified and led to recapture.

In 1824 a "stepping mill" or treadmill was introduced which allowed those with no skills or serving short sentences a way to labor. The male prisoners would spend 10 minutes walking while holding on to an overhead bar then 5 minutes resting. Approximately 20 men at a time were on the mill. The power it produced was used to grind grain or corn and run various machines. It was short lived since the prison closed in 1827 when a new above ground facility was built in Wethersfield.

Several attempts were made to resume mining on the site including the Phoenix Mining Company, which had links through Richard Bacon to Simsbury's Ensign-Bickford Company based on the use of safety fuse. Phoenix attempted to use technology such as steam and waterpower to increase production. The Panic of 1837 caused it to fail. Two more companies, The Connecticut Copper Company and the Lenox Mining Company took the mining efforts into 1901. Then private individuals, who saw a new use for it, purchased the site.

Since its inception the tunnels and passageways of New Gate have attracted the interest of the curious and those simply looking for unusual entertainment. Initially by paying a small fee to the prison keeper or a guard visitors would be accompanied down into the underground cavern. Even families would picnic on the grounds before or after an underground tour. By 1857 tourism was encouraged by the private owners who supplied candles and maps to the brave visitors. A wooden observation tower was built which allowed views of Massachusetts. The Viets Tavern or Newgate Inn located across from the prison served tourists meals. In the 1920s and 30s a dance floor installed in an old guardhouse attracted visitors or a romantic evening of dancing as well as an exploration of the tunnels on Saturday nights.

Its current incarnation as an historical destination began in 1968 when the State of Connecticut purchased the site and began interpreting it to new generations of visitors who can feel the chill and thrill of its damp tunnels and the memories of those who struggled to mine copper ore from the mineral rich rock for themselves or for the prison they called home.

 

 

 

 

 
Simsbury Historical Society
800 Hopmeadow Street
Simsbury, CT 06070
860-658-2500
info@simsburyhistory.org