Goodspeed Opera House
In 1977, I had the opportunity to see the famous musical theater production Annie, shortly after it opened on Broadway. Part of the show’s appeal was that it was first screened by local critics at a small theater called the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. My curiosity was piqued, so I researched the Opera House and found some incredible scenic photographs of an iconic four-story structure in the mid-1800s that stood majestically along the Connecticut River. At the time, I thought it would be an incredible experience to take a road trip to see a performance at the Opera House. It took me 45 years but I finally got there and the experience was incredible.
William Goodspeed built the Second Empire-style Opera House with mansard roofs along the Connecticut River in the town of East Haddam, Connecticut, to attract tourists in 1867. Although the Opera House appears to be located far away in rural Connecticut, William Goodspeed designed it as a tourist destination. It also owned many of the town’s other businesses serving visitors.
An interesting fact about the Goodspeed Opera House is that it never hosted opera. From the beginning it was a place for dramatic and musical theater productions. The actual structure had a long history of use, but unfortunately fell into disrepair in the early 20th century. In 1954, the local community founded a non-profit organization. Goodspeed Musicals and began restoring the iconic structure along the Connecticut River. Four years later, the Opera House reopened and quickly became a premiere location to preserve the legacy of the American Musical Theater and to incubate the development of new musicals. Over the years, Goodspeed has been the testing ground for more than 20 musicals that eventually opened on Broadway.
In addition to Annie, Goodspeed Opera House also premiered two of my favorite musicals, Man Of La Mancha and Shenandoah. The day I visited, I saw a new musical based on the beloved children’s book Anne of Green Gables. My experience was unforgettable from start to finish. The road to the Opera House took me through tree-lined roads and small New England towns. I crossed the west side of the Connecticut River over the Swinging Bridge in East Haddam. The bridge opens frequently and I was lucky to be able to cross without delay.
The Opera House is on the east side of the river in the charming town of East Haddam. At the entrance of the theatre, guests were taken to the first floor, where we bought drinks and souvenirs and saw the two Tony Awards awarded to the Goodspeed Musicals Organization. The pre-show waiting area was small and quickly became crowded. There was a small porch in the back with a beautiful view of the Connecticut River, but it was also packed with customers who had arrived long before me.
Finally the main theater opened and we climbed an elegant red-carpeted staircase. On the second floor there was a theater members’ lounge and toilets. The actual performance space was on the 3rd and 4th floors above the Opera House. After climbing another flight of stairs, I reached the orchestra seating area to find a restored 1800s theater for 398 people with a small balcony. Every seat in the house was close to the stage and the performers. The next two hours were pure magic, and after two acts and a hiatus, I regretted having to leave so quickly. I decided to go back and see more.
The Goodspeed Musicals performance season runs from May to September. There’s also a holiday production in November. You can sign up for their email newsletter to learn about upcoming shows. Reservation is essential as most seats are purchased early with season subscriptions. History next door to the theater Gelston House Restaurant and InnFeaturing an inviting outdoor patio and traditional indoor seating. Owned by the Goodspeed Opera House Foundation, the restaurant is the perfect place to grab lunch or dinner while watching a show at the theatre. Again, reservations are a must.
Essex Steam Train
Down the Connecticut River was another gem to behold. this Essex Steam Train and River Cruise It was two experiences packed into one. Across America, many heritage railroad companies restore and preserve old steam locomotives, railroad tracks, and passenger cars. Most of them are volunteers who dedicate countless hours to preserving America’s railroad history. Almost every state has at least one heritage line that offers visitors the opportunity to experience what train travel was like many years ago.
Originating from Essex, Connecticut, the Essex Steam Train runs on the old route of the Valley Steam Line. The line has four authentic steam locomotives and a variety of passenger cars. Passengers can choose between regular passenger coaches or a premium car with more comfortable seating and beverage service.
I booked online for a combination of steam train cruise and riverboat cruise. Arriving at the railroad depot, I visited the ticket office and secured the entry that I had purchased online. About 10 minutes before our departure, we were allowed to board the train and take our seats. I boarded a restored Pullman car, comfortably equipped for first-class travel.
The train journey slowly made its way north through the small New England towns of Deep River and Chester, along a tree-lined railroad near the Connecticut River. Sometimes there were scenic views of the Connecticut River, forests, and tidal wetlands. Even though it was a hot New England summer day, the wagons with open windows were comfortable. I had a drink and talked to other passengers. The journey was explained along the entire route and photo spots were marked for those who wanted to take landscape photos.
Becky Thatcher Riverboat
In the middle of the trip, the steam train stopped at the Deep River Landing Depot along the Connecticut River to allow passengers to take an hour-long journey aboard a riverboat named Becky Thatcher. The tourist boat was a modernized version of an old riverboat designed to carry a trainload of passengers. The river cruise traveled through a natural area that includes some state parks, marinas, coves, coves, marshes, rocky shorelines, and Gillette Castle.
William Gillette’s stately home is now the attraction of Gillette Castle State Park, which also has a museum and visitor center. The 3-story, 24-room mansion perched on a cliff along the Connecticut River. The castle has a distinctly artistic medieval gothic style. There is nothing else like it and the river provided the perfect place to take landscape photos. Our journey aboard Becky Thatcher took us from the Connecticut River to the Swinging Bridge in East Haddam and the Goodspeed Opera House. Almost the entire journey was narrated and a comfortable way to spend a hot summer afternoon. I can only imagine that this area would be fantastically beautiful in the fall when the leaves change color.
Afterwards, all passengers on board returned to Essex Station to board the steam train. As we traveled on the riverboat, we discovered that the train had returned to the station to pick up a new trainload of passengers awaiting boarding as we departed. The train ride followed the same route as before and seemed to go by fast.
We got off at the station and the train was made ready for a new batch of passengers. In general, the train journey and boat trip took about 2 hours and 15 minutes. The station had a gift shop and an area where you could buy food. The site also had many train cars from other railroads and a workshop to repair and refurbish their wagons and engines. While I was there, I saw mechanics working on a special locomotive to be used for December holiday trips.
There are many other historic sites along the Connecticut River. I had the opportunity to visit and write about the uniquely natural granite Thimble Islands archipelago near Stony Creek in Long Island Sound. I have also visited the towns of Mystic and New London many times. I actually made Mystic my home base for this trip. Eventually, I hope to visit places like the Mark Twain Museum in Hartford and the Connecticut River Museum in Essex and the Ivoryton Playhouse. Other popular attractions nearby are the Submarine Forces Library and Museum in Groton, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Eugene O’Neill’s Monte Cristo Summer Cottage and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. . historic New London.
I’ve waited so many years to visit the Goodspeed Opera House and I’m sure I missed a lot of great shows. As a fan of heritage railways, I wish I had known about the Essex Steam Train much earlier. Both attractions are truly historic gems that you must visit if you are traveling in this part of the United States. Autumn weekends are particularly popular in this region due to the beauty of the changing leaves. Remember to book regardless of the time of year you travel. Whether you like historic architecture, musical theatre, historic steam trains, or a leisurely boat ride, there is something for everyone to enjoy along the historic and scenic Connecticut River.