Connecticut is the third smallest state in the U.S. Our RV adventures often showed us that there is a lot of truth to the saying “small is beautiful.” In just two nights of camping, we discovered the beauty of Connecticut, which, together with Rhode Island, the smallest state, we enjoyed on the way from New York to Massachusetts. We visited the state’s three largest cities: Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford. Of the seven landmarks we explored, we were treated to three unique museums, two renowned authors’ houses, the campus of an Ivy League school, and a prestigious financial services building. It is interesting to note that, as of the 2010 census, Connecticut is also the 29th most populous state, making it the fourth-most densely populated of the 50 states. This didn’t get in the way of hitting the road, though. Here’s our recommended route, and the stops we enjoyed.
Bridgeport is only an hour and 45 minutes from New York City. With a population of almost 150,000 residents, it is actually the largest city in the state. Connecticut’s geography has given it a strong maritime tradition, which continues even today. As a coastal city, Bridgeport, together with New Haven, another coastal city, is at the center of the state’s maritime industry. But it was the Barnum Museum that made us stop in the city.
It is a museum for the young and the young at heart like us. As the main authority on P.T. Barnum (1810-1891), the museum takes care of about 60,000 items related to the life and work of this showman, businessman, and founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Barnum himself conceived of the building of the museum. In fact, he approved the detailed plans just weeks before he died. With funds he left behind, it opened two years later and has become a national treasure that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
New Haven is only about 30 minutes from Bridgeport and 40 minutes from Hartford, the state capital to the northeast. It is the second-largest city at almost 130,000 in population. As a coastal city like Bridgeport, it is also at the center of the state’s big maritime industry. My husband was eager to visit the museum and a university campus close to his heart.
The Knights of Columbus Museum was the second unique museum on our itinerary. The growth of industry and finance created a need for raising the quality of life of the poor. In 1882, when Fr. Michael McGiveny (who is currently up for sainthood at the Vatican) saw the need for an organization that could partner with parishes to help poor immigrant families, he founded the Knights of Columbus. It has become the largest fraternal service organization in the Catholic Church. Today, the organization has about two million members in 15,000 councils worldwide. My husband is a member in Mesa, Arizona.
New Haven is also home to the beautiful campus of Yale University, one of the Ivy League schools. My husband was offered a full scholarship there but chose to accept the one offered by Oberlin College near Cleveland, Ohio, instead. We found the Yale campus, especially the old district, so charming. He had no doubt he would have enjoyed Yale at least as much as Oberlin, if not more. When you happen to be at Yale, you must not forget to pay a short visit to the Yale University Art Gallery. It is, in fact, the oldest university art museum in the Western Hemisphere. Housed in several buildings on the campus, it emphasizes Italian paintings, African sculptures, and modern art.
Hartford is the capital of Connecticut and is home to over 120,000 residents. The city is known as the Insurance Capital of the World because it is where the financial services industry grew to be as important as the state’s maritime industry. These two industries actually combine to give the state the highest per capita income, human development index, and median household income in the entire U.S. That is quite an achievement for such a small piece of land! In Hartford, we visited the Travelers Tower, the Mark Twain House, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and the now-closed Trash Museum (more on each of these experiences below).
One of the financial services industry’s most distinctive landmarks is the 34-story Travelers Tower, the Travelers Insurance building in downtown Hartford. When it was constructed in 1919, it was the seventh-tallest building in the world. Aside from being the headquarters of one of the biggest insurance companies, the observation deck on the 27th floor of is where you can get the best aerial view of the city.
Hartford is also a center of excellence in literary works in the state, New England, and the country. The lovely Mark Twain House and Museum is quite a place to see. It has been described as “part steamboat, part medieval fortress, and part cuckoo clock.” It is where the renowned author, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), wrote his most important works between 1884 and 1891. These included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. However, it was sad to find out that this was also the house where he saw much of his wealth disappear due to bad investments in the printing industry.
It was amazing to chance upon the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and House just a few yards away from the Mark Twain House. It happens to sit right next to it, almost on the same block. The landmark novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which graphically details the harshest of conditions endured by slaves in America and thus helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War. Mark Twain’s work was published 20 years after the Civil War. In other words, Twain and Stowe may have been a generation apart, but they were both addressing the same issue of racism in their writing. In fact, we are still dealing with it today.
The Mark Twain House made our list of recommendations for where to visit the U.S. homes of some of your favorite authors, and both the Twain residence and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center are included in my advice on how to do a literary tour of New England.
Even the recycling industry is benefitting from the innovative spirit in Connecticut. The CRRA — Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority — established the country’s first museum about garbage. It was called the Trash Museum. It proudly demonstrated not only what trash accumulation does to the environment but also advocated single-stream recycling — leading the way in this industry. It was unbelievable to see the kind of work they were doing in this unique museum. Unfortunately, it closed permanently in June of 2016.
Connecticut’s place in the history of the U.S. is quite secure. It was the fifth of the original 13 states, those visionary colonies that rebelled against the British Empire and succeeded in forming the Union. In fact, Connecticut led all the others in the formulation of a constitution. Its Fundamental Orders was adopted as early as 1639 and heavily influenced the framing of the U.S. Constitution and the development of the federal government. One of Connecticut’s early leaders, Roger Sherman of New Haven, was among its authors.
If you are in New York, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts, consider passing through Connecticut to see for yourself how such a small state has become so beautifully successful.
Want more New England inspiration? Consider our nine must-stops for a New York to Boston road trip, the most scenic New England fall foliage road trip, nine quaint bed and breakfasts in New England, and what it’s like experiencing New England as it reopens to visitors.