A little history…
Independence was in the air, and on January 31st, 1776, the Colony of Connecticut authorized the building of its first warship for the Revolution, the Oliver Cromwell. Charged with this mission was shipbuilder Uriah Hayden of Essex (then known as “Saybrook”) who quickly hired tradesmen and contracted with suppliers to outfit the vessel. Essex, perfectly situated for shipbuilding, suddenly experienced an economic boom as the Hayden’s housed the shipyard workers, and provided food, spirits and lodging to the suppliers, politicians and other patriots who would visit: the Oliver Cromwell was successfully launched on June 13, 1776.
Born of Independence, these are the beginnings of The Griswold Inn, a destination for seafarers and land travelers alike for more than 238 years. Today the “Gris” remains the center of a thriving community, offering a unique experience and a comfortable connection to the past.
Following the war, a vigorous economic climate and remarkable innovations forever changed the way Americans lived and traveled. Regular steamboat service began on the Connecticut River in 1824 with Essex as an important stop, and a new ferry crossing and turnpike also opened nearby. Suddenly the population was able to travel, by land and water, and the citizenry was hungry to satisfy their curiosity. The Griswold Inn was in the perfect location to capitalize on both the land and water traveler and offered a warm and comfortable refuge from a difficult passage or inclement weather. Steamboats were built ever larger and regular service between Hartford and New York included a stop in Essex. This “golden era” of steamboating is remembered well in The Griswold Inn’s outstanding collection of marine art and artifacts from the period. Prints by Currier & Ives and Endicott & Co., ship’s portraits by James Bard, Antonio Jacobsen, Charles Parsons and others, and illustrations by Samuel Ward Stanton and Norman Rockwell cover the walls. There is also an extensive collection of firearms primarily used during the War of 1812 and/or the Revolutionary War together with Connecticut weapons made by Samuel Colt and others.
The Griswold Inn was the site of protests during the 1840’s organized by the women of the “Temperance Movement”. Several temperance banners remain from those protests, now hanging in the historic dining section of the Inn. For a time, The Griswold Inn itself became a “first class temperance hotel”, although that doesn’t seem to have lasted for very long. Even as the nation was turning toward prohibition in the early 20th century, the “Gris” was known as a reliable source for spirits. Often raided, occasionally fined and always back in business, the Federal authorities seemed to have had their hands full trying to stop the flow of liquor up the Connecticut River by “rum runners” at all hours of the night. These fast boats would dock on one of the many secluded coves along the river, unload, and be gone before anyone could track them down. The “Feds” were no match for the independent Yankee seaman who grew up on these waters, not unlike their ancestors, the “privateers”.
The Great Depression, prohibition and the end of ship building all took its toll on Essex and the surrounding area. The economy sank and life slowed down but, despite these challenges, The Griswold Inn survived. It was the careful stewardship of the Ladd/Lovell family during this period that allowed the Inn to thrive again as Essex was discovered by a new force from the sea, the recreational yachtsman. By the 1940’s, sailors were once again sailing into Essex harbor, yacht clubs were established, and the unique charm of The Griswold Inn rediscovered as a destination. By the 1960s, pleasure craft were in abundance, I-95 had been completed and lots of weekend travelers from New York City and further found their way to Essex. The dining rooms of the ‘Gris’ were expanded and the Lovell’s purchased adjacent historic properties to offer additional lodging. This expansion continued when the “Gris” was sold to William Winterer in the 1970s with the addition of several buildings across Main Street.
The Paul Family of Essex purchased the Griswold Inn in 1995 and has passionately preserved the historic property. The Griswold Inn Wine Bar was added in 2005 and the Griswold Inn Store in 2010.The Inn now offers three different dining options (Historic Dining, Wine Bar & Taproom), lodging in 33 unique guest rooms, on-site catering for private events and weddings, entertainment nightly in the lively Taproom and a full line of Griswold Inn merchandise and handmade artisan crafts in The Griswold Inn Store.And yet, The Griswold Inn still serves its original function. It is the gathering place for our community, a place where many have started family traditions, going on generations. The “Gris” is the authentic New England inn experience. In these times of “Comfort Inns” and “Four Seasons” some people don’t know what to make of a place so unlike any other…the quirkiness, the camaraderie, the history, the fun…but if they figure it out, they fall in love.
Featured in television and film, The Griswold Inn was used as the “Collinsport Inn” for the cutting edge 1960s daytime drama, Dark Shadows. Essex and the “Gris” served as a backdrop for the 1961 film Parish starring Troy Donahue and Claudette Colbert and also for Doris Day’s 1959 It Happened to Jane, primarily filmed in nearby Chester. Scenes for 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were filmed in Essex, The Griswold Inn was mentioned in the 2010 Mad Men series premiere and most recently it was featured in a 2014 episode of abc’s popular romantic-reality show, The Bachelorette. Print media continues to write frequently about the “Gris” as a unique and unforgettable destination. Notably, the “Gris” is included in Patricia Schultz’ best-selling travel book, One Thousand Places to See Before You Die. Born of American Independence, the “Gris” is a place to make your own history. We look forward to welcoming you.