Top Navigation  
U.S. Flag waving
Office Hours Momday - Friday  8 am - 5 pm Pacific 1-800-835-2418
Facebook   YouTube   Twitter
 Home Page
 Current Issue
 Article Index
 Author Index
 Previous Issues

 Kindle Subscriptions
 Kindle Publications
 Back Issues
 Discount Books
 All Specials
 Classified Ad

 Web Site Ads
 Magazine Ads

 BHM Forum
 Contact Us/
 Change of Address

Forum / Chat
 Forum/Chat Info
 Lost Password
 Write For BHM

Link to BHM

Where We Live by John Silveira and Richard Blunt. Photos and commentary from Oregon and New England.

Want to Comment on a blog post? Look for and click on the blue No Comments or # Comments at the end of each post.

The Original Sherlock Holmes and His Castle

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Sherlock Holmes is considered modern culture’s most famous private detective. Over the years this great sleuth has been portrayed by a number of talented actors in the movies and on stage. The impressive list of actors includes: Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Nicol Williamson, Robert Stephens, John Neville, Peter Cushing, and recently Robert Downey Jr., who has starred in two movies and has signed on for a third. In the reception area of Gillette Castle there is a bronze casting of William Hooker Gillette, an American actor, playwright and stage-manager; best known as the first to portray Sherlock Holmes in a 1916 silent film. His imaginative portrayal of Holmes established the familiar modern image of this near-genius detective. During his successful career Gillette portrayed Holmes over a thousand times. This was an amazing accomplishment when you consider he was portraying a character that could briefly review vague clues at a crime scene and sum it up with: “Oh this is elementary my dear fellow.”

Gillette was born in the Nook Farm neighborhood of Hartford. This was the literary and intellectual center of the city where residents like Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe also called home. His father, Francis Gillette, was a United States senator, and his mother, Elizabeth Gaggett Hooker, was a descendant of Reverend Thomas Hooker, the Puritan leader that founded the town of Hartford.

The character of Sherlock Holmes was the creation of  Scottish physician and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes first appeared in publication in 1887, and, over the years, has been featured in 4 novels and more than 50 short stories. Gillette was given his first opportunity to portray Sherlock Holmes in the play “Sherlock Holmes” that he coauthored with Conan Doyle. The four act play also introduced Holmes’s archenemy Professor James Moriarty, a criminal mastermind that Holmes described as the “Napoleon of Crime.” Despite the fact that Doyle was listed as coauthor, it was Gillette that actually wrote this very successful play. That play launched the Sherlock Holmes character into the entertainment world to be enjoyed by millions in future stage plays, movies and television productions.


Visitors making their way along the path to the to Gillette Castle are greeted by a welcome sign featuring a silhouette image of Sherlock Holmes sporting a deerstalker cap, and holding a curved briar pipe in his mouth. This familiar image was created by the Victorian era illustrator, Sidney Paget, best known for his illustrations accompanying the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, that were published in the United Kingdom by Strand magazine during the 1890s.


Gillette named his estate Seventh Sister because it was built on the southernmost of a group of hills known as the Seven Sisters. The Castle is well known to most Connecticut residents because they became familiar with it at a young age and visited it many times while growing up. This familiarity makes it difficult for some to believe that a medieval-style castle looming high over their placid Connecticut River Valley is anything out of the ordinary. After only one visit, I can assure you that Gillette Castle is not an ordinary Connecticut mansion. Gillette designed and built the Castle over a five year span (1914-1919) from local field stone skillfully layered to conceal the steel support structure below. He designed the entire building himself, including 47 doors, each with its own wooden puzzle lock that he also designed. He installed a bar that could be made to disappear, a convenient and necessary feature during prohibition. Being somewhat voyeuristic, he set up a mirror system that allowed him to see down into the main room of the Castle from his bedroom to see when invited guests arrived, so that he could make a “proper grand entrance.”

He was not married when he died, so he willed the 128-acre estate to the state of Connecticut. His will precluded the possession of his Castle by any “blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The state renamed the building Gillette’s Castle, and the property Gillette Castle State Park. After four years of restoration, the park opened in 2002. The park now features a museum, hiking trails and a picnic area, and receives about 300,000 visitors a year.

Below is a western view of the Castle.


The Castle as seen when approached from the visitors’ parking lot.


A stone archway leading to one of the hiking trails.


Gillette was fascinated with trains. He built a three-mile, small-scale working railroad around his property along with a series of tunnels and bridges. He called this railway the “Seven Sister Short Line,” and often drove the engine himself when entertaining guests. He had two engines built to service his railway: one steam operated and one electric. The electric engine is pictured below; the steam engine is scheduled to be restored.


Below is “Grand Central Station,” one of the stations that Gillette built for his short line railroad.


Gillette owned and rode at least two motorcycles: the first was a Triumph and the second was a Ner-A-Car, like the one pictured below. Edwin “Cannonball” Baker, a vaudeville actor turned race car driver, rode a bike similar to this from New York to Los Angeles in eight days, sitting in the saddle for 172 hours, cruising at 30 mph while getting 75 miles per gallon of gas. Not bad for a machine that cost 225 dollars. That is about 3000 dollars in today’s money. Unfortunately, the bike pictured below is not the one owned by Gillette. This machine is on loan to the state from a Connecticut resident, and is believed to be the most complete, unrestored  Ner-A-Car on this continent.


The lookout terrace offers a scenic view of the Connecticut River.



A view of the path to the Castle as seen from the lookout terrace.


A view of the grand staircase the leads to the upper floors.


A view of the magnificent stone fireplace located in the main room downstairs.


A hallway leading from the Grand hall to the outside terrace



Farmington’s Riverside cemetery is located above and beside the Farmington River. In the fall, as the leaves start falling from the trees, visitor can enjoy a view of the river and, one of my favorite hangouts, Kolp Community Gardens. William Hooker Gillette died of a pulmonary hemorrhage at age 83 on April 29, 1937. His grave can be found  in the Hooker family plot near the south entrance of the Farmington Riverside Cemetery.

Is history alive in Connecticut? Elementary my dear friends.



Comments are closed.



Copyright © 1998 - Present by Backwoods Home Magazine. All Rights Reserved.