Geo SubSea Part 3: The Aunt Polly at Gillette Castle State Park
Jeff Gardner – President, Marine Geologist & Oceanographer
Elizabeth Spielman – Administrator & Associate Scientist, Geologist in Training
Aunt Polly – Local CT Archaeological Preserve
Travel back in time to visit the remains of William Gillette’s houseboat Aunt Polly, an archeological preserve visible at low tide along the east shore of the Connecticut River.
You may know of Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam, CT. This medieval style castle built for William Hooker Gillette was completed in 1919 and can be seen from the west bank of the Connecticut River if you look east from the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry. What you may not know is that right below this magnificent castle, along the shore of the Connecticut River, lies the remains of William Gillette’s houseboat Aunt Polly. The shipwreck is just north of the ferry landing on the east side of the river.
Who is Aunt Polly?
The story that has been passed down claims that Aunt Polly was not William Gillette’s aunt in fact, she was a kind woman from the mountains of North Carolina who nursed Mr. Gillette back to health after he became ill during a stay in the area. It appears that he had such admiration for this kind woman who saved him, that he would name his second houseboat after her.
History of the vessel, Aunt Polly
Built in 1899 by F.W. Ofeldt & Sons in South Brooklyn NY, the steam yacht was originally 100 feet long and was lengthened 4 years later by 40 feet in the middle section. The Aunt Polly featured living quarters, a comfortable saloon furnished with a brick fireplace and piano, as well as a lounge and library on the main deck. Mr. Gillette was a creative genius and made a name for himself as a successful actor (Sherlock Holmes fame!), director, and playwright but he also took great pleasure in architecture and design. He was highly involved in the production of the Aunt Polly, and he planned to live on board while his house was being built on Long Island. However, in 1913 on a cruise up the Connecticut River, William Gillette spotted the location we know today as Gillette Castle State Park and decided that is where he wanted to live. Around this same time, the Aunt Polly began to show signs of deterioration and was no longer seaworthy, so she was moored along the eastern shoreline of Mr. Gillette’s property. He lived on the boat while the castle was being constructed. When his home was completed in 1919, he built a permanent cement cradle for the Aunt Polly where she served as a garden house until a fire on December 20, 1932 deemed her a total loss.
For almost a century, the remains of the Aunt Polly have been battered by tides, wakes from boat traffic, and large sheets of ice that float along the river during the coldest winter months. In 2003, state archaeologists, volunteers from the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology, Inc. (FOSA), and interested students from nearby colleges took wood samples and made detailed notes of the site. The following year, Aunt Polly was added to the list of Connecticut State Archaeological Preserves.
There are some significant artifacts on display inside the castle like the brass boat whistle, a section of the scalloped awning, and a custom Aunt Polly marine mosaic made from shells and colorful stones but the remains along the shoreline are just as fascinating.
Though a bit harder to get to than the castle itself, walking around the Aunt Polly shipwreck is worth the extra planning. Be sure to check out the East Haddam, CT tide chart and look for low tide when planning your trip as this is the only time the water level is low enough to see the site! One of the first things you may notice sticking up out of the sand is a row of metal bolts and the remains of the ships wooden keel which is the central structural component running the entire length of the vessel and is the foundation on top of which the frames and floors are attached. As you walk south, you may notice some old valves, metal storage tanks and pieces of the wooden hull on the left and right of the keel. Watch your step as you navigate the wreck and do not disturb any of the remains. Please take only pictures and leave only footprints so this site may continue to be visited and enjoyed by future generations of curious folks like yourselves!
Stay safe and healthy until our next post,
Jeff and Liz
Want to take a trip to the site? Download a trail map of Gillette Castle State Park here.
For more information on the Aunt Polly and other Connecticut Underwater Preserves, see below:
Connecticut’s First Underwater Archaeological Preserves
Sites Underwater Worth Preserving, Too