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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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Archive for the ‘Historic Places’ Category


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

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

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.




Boston Public Garden–An annual family visit to Mrs Mallard and her Ducklings

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Public Garden – The Original Plan

This is a draft of the original  plan for development of the Boston Public Garden. With the exception of some minor changes made to the Duck Pond over the years, this original plan remains relatively unchanged. In the lower right hand corner of the of the picture is the Beacon street/Charles street gate Mrs Mallard and her ducklings are just a few yards inside this gate on the left.


In Colonial times the 24 acres of sculpture, fountains, elaborate flower beds, and notable trees known, world wide, as the Boston Public Garden, was a malodorous salt marsh, and sewage dumping ground known as Round Marsh. In 1837 the city of Boston leased this patch of uninviting ground to a  group headed by Horace Gray, a wealthy Boston business man, and avid gardener. Gray petitioned the City for permission to transform the site into a this country’s first botanical garden. The  petition quickly became a political football and was kicked back and forth between the Garden proprietors and the City Council for nearly 20 years. It is recorded that private investors and city politicians wanted to carve the land into house lots. In 1856 the state intervened and appointed a legislative commission to resolve the dispute. The Public Garden act, a bill that proposed the land be devoted, forever, to public use and no other building other than a city hall be erected on it, unless it would support the Garden’s  horticultural purpose.   Before the bill could become law it had to be ratified by the citizens of Boston. So, the Act was submitted to Boston voters on April 26, 1856, and was passed by a margin of sixty to one. This was a mandate from the citizens of Boston binding city government to maintain the Garden as a botanical park—forever.

The final design of the Garden was done by George Meacham, a local architect. His plan was the only landscape design submitted in a blind competition conducted by the city. As the winner, Meacham was paid 100 dollars for his effort.  The various paths and flower beds were laid out by James Slade (Boston City Engineer) and the city forester, John Galvin. They also erected statues, and fountains at selected locations around the gardens. The first was a statue of Edward Everett Hale, son of Nathan Hail, best known for his Civil War novel “Man Without a Country.” On July 3, 1869 a bronze equestrian statue of George Washington was unveiled. This was a proud event for the city. A poor boy from Charlestown had sculpted the statue, the Boston Masons had constructed and raised the granite base, and a Boston foundry had performed the bronze casting of this magnificent work. Today it is acknowledged one of the finest equestrian statues in America.

Photo visits for Public Garden and the Boston Common are on  my schedule for early spring.   Botanical gardens are best photographed in the spring and summer when their flower plantings and trees are in glorious bloom, and the sun is shining. This gray, overcast,  morning was not going to reward me with that kind of setting. This visit is the Blunt family yearly pilgrimage to spend some time with my wife’s family–Mrs Mallard and her eight ducklings. We do this every year in rain, snow, or national disaster. From here we also planned to visit a long time friend and Backwoods Home associate, Ollie Del Signore for lunch. Finally, we would return our son, Michael to Salem State University for his final semester before he graduates.

Fascination with Mrs Mallard began long before my wife and I met. On her third birthday, Tricia’s grandmother gave her a copy of Robert McCloskey’s popular children’s book, Make Way For Ducklings. Published in 1941, the book tells the story of a pair of Mallard ducks who raised a family on an island in the middle of a pond at the Public Garden. Like most Bostonians, the various parks the Emerald Necklace are among our favorite places to visit. The Public Garden with its famous Swan boats, and bronze statues of Mrs Mallard quickly became Tricia’s favorite, and remains so today. Our first visit to this popular exhibit was shortly after it was set in place, in 1987.

 As we approached the Garden, Tricia, spotted  a young family crossing the foot bridge that spans the pond were the Swan boats are kept.”Let’s park the car and follow them,” she said. “They may be going to visit Mrs Mallard also.” I parked the car, grabbed my camera. and off we went to visit this famous duck family.

The Foot Bridge

Designed by Boston architect William Preston, this bridge was originally designed and built as a suspension bridge. Completed in 1867, the bridge was considered somewhat overbuilt by many Bostonians. The often referred to as “the smallest suspension bridge in the world. As reinforcements and repairs were made over the years, the Foot Bridge was transformed, and is now technically a girder bridge. The remaining spider-web cables are decorations. When we got to this point, the young family were leaving the bridge and heading for the Swan Boat docking area to feed a small flock of ducks that winter over on the pond.


The Book

Tricia, was given a copy of this popular book, by her grandmother on her third birthday. Since then the book has become a must have for every child born into her family. The book pictured below was given to my daughter Sarah on her first birthday by my wife’s mother and father. Over the past 25 years, a hard copy of this book  has been given to all of her nieces, nephews, grand nieces and nephews, and our sons Jason and Michael. Not counting children born into other families, my last count was twenty copies.

IMG_1249 copy copy

The Lagoon (Duck Pond)

Lagoon is a modern name. Many Bostonians still call it “The Duck Pond.” The pond’s original design called for a fountain in the middle, on the Boylston St side, and a point projecting from the Charles Street side. Both have disappeared over the years. This artificial pond was completed in the summer of 1861. It is about 4 feet deep with a clay base covered with gravel. It is interesting to note that pond still retains a relationship with it’s tidal origins. The water level rises and falls slightly, but noticeably, with the tides. The pond is drained and refilled twice a year with water from the Boston municipal system.


Mrs Mallard and her most Devoted Admirers.

Created by renowned sculptor, Nancy Schon  and placed along the path between the Duck Pond and the Beacon-Charles gate, this group of duckling statues has been a continuing success, and a special attraction for children. In 1991, Barbara Bush gave a duplicate of this sculpture to Raisa Gorbachev as a part of the START treaty. Scenes like the one pictured below are a, year around, daily event at this exhibit.

Meet Colby and Cooper

The two, Mrs Mallard, admirers in this photo are Tricia’s grandnephews. The little guy hugging Mrs Mallard is Colby, the oldest They are the sons of Tricia’s niece, Jennifer. The boys and their mother have their own copies of Make Way For Ducklings.  If you look closely at the love on Colby’s face you will understand why our family tradition will live on for many years.

High Five Mom.

Colby and Cooper 495

Pictured below is the seven Mrs Mallard admirers that we followed into the Garden. This scene is repeated over and over every day, by many families with children . Often, it is difficult to tell who is having the most fun, the kids of the adults.

Mrs Mallard

After spending an hour playing with Mrs Mallard and her ducklings, these children convinced the parents to take them to the boat landing to feed some real ducks


Equestrian Bronze Of George Washington by Thomas Ball


Bronze of Edward Everett Hale by Bela Lyon Pratt 


The Bottom Line.

The plantings and the statuary, in the Boston Public Garden, evoke a Victorian heritage. But the outstanding character for this garden, and the other parks in the Emerald Necklace is “public.” Their public character is not merely in their accessibility, but in the extraordinary role that Bostonians and the residents of surrounding towns play in their protection and preservation.



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