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

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Riding The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat Connection and a Kolp Garden update

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

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Meet Layla, Madeline, and Sarah Ann

My Steam Train/Riverboat adventure ride on this sunny and pleasantly warm summer afternoon was everything that I hoped  it would be. My experience, however, blossomed into sheer joy when, by chance, two adorable little girls walked past my camera lens as I was framing my first shot.  At first I thought little of it. After I finished the shot and started to move to set my next scene, by reflex I paused to see where the girls were. They had moved to other side of the boat and were busy asking their mothers questions about everything that they saw. That brief encounter left me with an epiphany of a similar experience with another little girl that I met over 26 years ago at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I was standing nervously in a distant corner of the delivery room when a nurse asked me if I would like to meet my just-born daughter. I nodded yes and she gently handed me a tiny bundle. She asked me what her name was; I nervously replied “Sarah Ann.” Sarah, like these two girls, loves new adventures and over the years we have had plenty. On all of our adventures, Sarah displayed the same excitement and sheer joy that Layla and Madeline were demonstrating on this day. And usually, at the end of a day packed with fun and excitement, Sarah had the  look of “I’m tired, Daddy. Can we go home now?” This seems to be the look on the faces of Layla and Madeline in the photo below.  This was my first experience with this type of emotion. It made my day a complete success.  My thanks to the two moms that gave me permission to share this experience.

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Sarah at 3 years

This picture was taken on our first “butterfly snoop” in the early fall 23 years ago. Farmington has a large population of Monarch butterflies. They start their southern migration at this time of year and we were out to see how many we could spot, or “snoop,” as Sarah would say. The Monarch photo at the top of this blog page is the result of a recent “snoop.”

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The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat is operated by the Valley Railroad Company in Essex, Connecticut. It is one of the most popular and well-known attractions in the state. The train takes passengers for a ride alongside of the Connecticut River from Essex to Chester, then back to Deep River Junction. There passengers have the option to board the Becky Thatcher Riverboat for a ride down the river to East Haddam. The steam train and the river offer passengers spectacular views of Gillette Castle, the East Haddam Bridge — one of the still-functioning, steel-truss swinging bridges in the country, and the well-known Goodspeed Opera House.

Construction of the original 45 miles of track, from Hartford to Saybrook Point, was started in 1870 and completed in 1871. The first official train run was launched on August 29, 1871. Shortly after the end the first World War, the railroad industry in New England began to suffer severe  financial problems.  Finally, in 1961, the company that owned the rail line went into bankruptcy, and the last train traveled the line in March of 1968. In 1969, a group of volunteers got together and obtained a temporary lease from the new owners of the line in an effort to prevent the rail line from being torn up. In August of 1969, the owners — Penn Central — signed the line over to the State of Connecticut. On June 1, 1970, the State granted a formal lease to the Valley Railroad company, authorizing it to use 22.67 miles of track for freight and passenger service. After thousands of hours of mostly voluntary effort, the first train of the new Valley Railroad steamed from Essex to Deep River on the 100th anniversary of the first ceremonial run, and has been running ever since.

The Steam Train ride features unique, special events during the year, beginning with my favorite ride, the Eagle Flyer, in mid- February. This train leaves Essex station  at 11am and travels to Eagle Landing State Park, where passengers are able to enjoy spectacular views of Bald Eagles as they migrate down the Connecticut River from points north. Naturalists are on board to answer any questions about the eagles or their migration. Beginning in mid-November and continuing to the end of December, Valley Railroad features the Polar Express. The entire train is converted into a locomotive-powered sleigh. Each coach becomes a live stage for a performance of The Night Before Christmas, and each child on the train receives a gift from Santa. There are an additional 9 special events throughout the year. Another favorite of mine is the Essex Clipper Dinner Train, featuring a great 4-course meal, served table side by professional wait staff in completely restored 1920s Pullman diner cars. If you are fortunate enough to be visiting Connecticut in the coming months, visit the Steam Train web site at to get details on all events.

The 2½ hour Steam Train/Riverboat ride offers many classic river scenes like the photo below.

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The train stops to allow passengers to get off who have chosen the hike to Gillette Castle. The train returns later to pick up these passengers and take them to the next stop.

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Deep River Junction is the next stop. It is here that we board the Becky Thatcher for the trip down the river.

2013-08-16 002 002 copyOur first view of Gillette Castle from the river

2013-08-16 006 001 - CopyAnother look at the Castle from the river

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Many of the communities along Connecticut’s coast and navigable rivers have relied on movable bridges since Colonial times. Wherever highways and waterways intersected it was necessary to construct some type of movable bridge to allow for the passage of tall masted vessels. The earliest bridges were wooden bascules (drawbridges). Later, wooden-trussed swing bridges came into use. Metal-truss technology was later used to build larger and stronger swing bridges to cross large waterways. By 1900, bascules were eclipsing swing bridges on all but the largest spans. Draw bridges could be built in congested settings to provide one wide waterway instead of two narrow ones. In addition, they could be opened only partway to allow for passage of small boats.

The East Haddam Bridge, shown below, is a classic example of metal-truss swing bridge technology. It crosses the Connecticut River to connect East Haddam and Haddam near the historic Goodspeed Opera House. This is where the Becky Thatcher turns around and heads back to the Deep River Junction to meet the train for our return trip to Essex Station.

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The Goodspeed Opera House

This is the original home of some of the world’s most notable American musicals: Annie, Man of La Mancha, and Shenandoah. The opera house was constructed by William Goodspeed in 1876. To spite its name, it was meant to be a venue for plays, not opera. After Goodspeed died the building fell into a severe state of disrepair, forcing the State of Connecticut to finally condemn the building  in 1959. As it often happens in Connecticut, a group of concerned citizens formed an organization called Goodspeed Musicals to attempt a restoration of the building. The State agreed to sell the building to this new organization for one dollar, with the provision that they secure funding to restore the building. The restoration effort took 4 years, and the Goodspeed Opera House was rededicated on June 8, 1963. The first performance staged in the restored building was O, Lady! Lady! a musical that first appeared at the Princess Theater on Broadway in 1918. Since 1968, the Goodspeed Opera House has sent 19 productions to Broadway. One dozen of these productions have received Tony Awards.

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A salute to master gardener Antonio Tsakiris. His friends, and fellow gardeners address him as Tony.

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During the past three years I have taken hundreds of photos of Kolp Gardens. When I started, I knew that I had a lot to learn about what it takes to plant and maintain a successful 2500 square foot garden like those in the Gardens. I met Tony on a very chilly day in late March of the first year. The only folks in the Gardens that day were the town surveyors marking off the individual plots, Tony, and me. After I introduced myself and explained what I was doing, he, without hesitation started to share with me his extensive knowledge of gardening. During our first 30-minute conversation he explained how he planned to lay out his garden, and which vegetables he would plant throughout the season. He invited me to stop by and talk to him if I had any gardening questions during the growing season. During the past three growing seasons I talked with Tony frequently, and watched him work in his garden for many hours from a distance. He was truly a Master Gardener and a good friend to all, especially those who expressed an interest in his favorite craft—gardening.

Tony in April, 2013

IMG_1358Early April, 2012

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IMG_1551June, 2012

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