Essex steam train and Connecticut riverboat tour

ticket taker

Conductor punches tickets, good for round trip train and riverboat ride.

WooOOooo.  Wooooo. Pshhhhhh. Lurch! and the old steam engine slowly pulls us down the track. When the bells ring and the gates go down to halt the traffic on CT-9, we know we are on the way, clackity-clack, to a Railroad/Riverboat tour of the beautiful Connecticut River Valley.

This is the Fortieth Anniversary of the Valley Railroad Company of Essex, and its distinction of being the only combination railroad/riverboat tour in the United States.

Once across the highway, we head into the woods and through the town’s back yards where we get quick peeks at gardens, porches, babbling brooks and wooden bridges, even a solitary Golden Retriever wandering up a narrow road.

back yard

A sunny Essex homestead

Some of the woods are deep, giving us a view of mosses and ferns interrupted by gray rock outcroppings. As they thin out, they reveal one of nature’s scourges – the northern version of kudsu – wild grape climbing any tree it can reach, giving the whole an eerie, ghostlike aspect.

wild grape or

Wild grape vines smothering the woodlands

Soon the landscape opens out to reveal the marshes with their meandering waterways on the inland side and our first glimpses of the river on the right. Boats are visible in all stages of readiness, including those that may have seen their last days afloat. As you move north, the wider part of the river is more familiar, with docks and on-the-water action.

Our train steams on until it reaches Chester, where it ends that part of the trip. It returns the short distance to Deep River. We exit the cars and walk the short distance down to the Becky Thatcher, a Mississippi-style riverboat for the second part of our adventure.

A different horn, a different ride

Deep River CT Green "35" mark

Green "35" mark for entrance to Deep River, CT

One long higher-pitched horn blares as the deckhands release the heavy lines and push us away from the pilings. We settle into our movable, plastic lawn chairs, so much more comfortable than the solid benches found on many tour boats. We move downriver just far enough to clear the end of Eustasia Island, round the “Green 35” mark, then head upriver toward the eastern shore. We follow it north with sightings of Gillette Castle, the ferry landing and at the end, the historic Haddam swing bridge. The Goodspeed Opera House sits on a rise to the right, providing an exclamation point ending to the outbound part of the cruise.

float dock

Sailboat tied up to its floating dock; owner approaches to tie upon port side.

Being old salts, my husband and I were fascinated by the mooring arrangement in the river near the Deep River marina. Having limited width, Brewer Yachts has used a system unfamiliar to me (not to him). Individual docks, about thirty feet long and three feet wide were moored along the east side of the channel. These were rented to boat owners who could pull up to the dock and take off from there.

The Riverboat offers a snack bar and rest room facilities on the lower of three decks. The top deck is “standing room only” and is limited to thirty passengers at a time. For any fearful boaters, the Becky Thatcher fully conforms to all U.S. Coast Guard regulations and carries accessible PFDs (personal flotation devices, or life jackets) for everyone aboard. She is flat-bottomed and broad-beamed, so the ride, even in the 20 knot wind we experienced, was smooth and comfortable.

End of the excursion; time to head on home, or if you want a special treat as well as a chance to visit the historic town of Essex the next day, let me suggest a night at the venerable Griswold Inn – in continual operation since 1776. Enjoy an elegant formal dinner or settle in for pub food at the charming Tap Room.

Passenger car conductor Click here for a video interview with the Company President

Click on the conductor for a video interview with
the President of the Valley Railroad Company:

The Essex Steam Train & Riverboat Tour Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of family fun and education

The Goodspeed Opera House – information including free docking for boats during performances
and the Historic Haddam swing bridge

Deep River Connecticut – Brewer Yacht Yard/About the Area Info for the boater and others, including charts, weather, events, history, etc.

Commander’s Weather – Worldwide Weather reports for boaters (mainly)

The Griswold Inn – one of the oldest continually running inns in America

Wild Grape and Virginia Creeper info from the Fairfax County, VA public school system: the related plants, the birds they feed and shelter, and control of the vines.

More about Connecticut’s southeastern shore

All photos © 2011 by Gail Hunter; video by Gail and Cor Hunter