Connecticut’s Best Communities: Essex CT

Essex, Connecticut was in the top of “The Best 100 Small Towns in America” by Norman Crompton. Its high rating reflects a combination of factors, including education, low crime rates, annual growth, prosperity and income.

Dating back to the mid-17th century, Essex sits on the west bank of the Connecticut River, 6 miles upstream from Long Island Sound. It includes the villages of Ivoryton and Centerbrook. Today, Essex retains its early 18th century New England village charm with its tree-lined streets and heritage.

The area known today as Essex Village was originally named Potapoug Point that’s a peninsula with two large coves on either side. Shipbuilding which played a central role in the early development of the community first began in the area in 1720 by John Tucker.

By the 1740s “Snows” for the West Indies trade were being built that was a distinctive New England vessel with two main foremasts and a small mizzen mast astern. When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, Uriah Hayden built the “Oliver Cromwell” which was a man-of-war carrying twenty-four guns that was the first warship ever built for the Continental forces.

During the War of 1812, the town’s shipyards was one of the few American cities that received a major attack by the British. The British blockaded the Connecticut River which had a major economic impact on Essex shipbuilding.

The shipyards turned to building small fast ships that were used as privateers that could overcome the larger slower British merchant ships. Captain Richard Hayden was a prominent local shipbuilder who advertised the Black Prince he was building in a New York City newspaper as “a 315 ton sharp schooner that would make an ideal privateer.”

The British spied the shipyards. In the early morning hours of April 8th, 1814, about 136 British marines and sailors from four warships under the command of Richard Coot rowed six boats up the Connecticut River arriving at the shipyards at four o’clock in the morning.

The Marines quickly gained control of the town, receiving a promise of no resistance from the local militia in return for not burning their homes or harming the town’s people. The Marines and sailors went to work with torches and axes burning and destroying the newly built privateers being readied for sail in the harbor.

They marched to Bushnell Tavern – now the Griswold Inn one of Essex’s several historic houses – and the Hartford Courant later reported that “$100,000 or upwards” worth of rum was captured. The British also seized the town’s supply of rope that was of strategic value as each ship required about seven miles of rope to sail.

After six hours the British had destroyed a total of 28 ships inflicting a major defeat against the Americans before setting off downstream towing two captured ships – one of which was the Black Prince that is believed to have initiated the raid.

However, the British became mired in the shallows as the tide dropped and came under fire from the residents of Killingworth who lined the river bank, killing two marines and causing the British to destroy the ships. They finally made their escape with the rising tide.

Following the raid and perhaps as a response to the notoriety the town had gained with its less than heroic defense the town’s name was forever after changed to Essex. Today, The Connecticut River Museum is located at the site where Coot and the British landed. It houses an exhibit portraying the raid with a large diorama and a musket ball believed to have been fired at that time.

There are many leisure and cultural activities in Essex. Summer recreation activities abound along the coast along with summer house rentals. The town promotes and maintains beaches, and boating and fishing areas. Attractions such as the 1920s Essex Steam Train and Riverboat are among Connecticut’s most popular tourist stops.

Essex village’s traditional New England charm and heritage makes it one of Connecticut’s best cities for your home and family.