Connecticut: Old New-Gate Prison Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This historic site has a three-hundred-year history as a mine, prison, and museum.

Site Office

Connecticut Historical Commission

59 South Prospect Street

Hartford, CT 06106

ph.: (203) 566-3005

The Metacomet Ridge was created in the Late Triassic period by successive floods of molten basalt alternating with the deposition of thick layers of eroded sediments of mud and sand. Mineral-laden hot springs deposited copper-rich sediments in the marshes and riverbeds of this landscape. The combination of erosional deposition, lava flows, and metamorphic pressure created alternate strata of basalt and sandstone, embedded with a copper-rich rock called chalcocite. Tectonic processes (the movement of the earth’s crust) tilted this landscape eastward at an angle of 23 degrees, projecting the western end of the strata upward, creating the Metacomet Ridge and exposing the copper-laden sandstone strata.

Early Mining

The copper deposits were discovered in 1705 in what was then the town of Simsbury. The town claimed ownership of the deposits, and in 1712 leased them to a partnership of Boston and New York merchants headed by Jonathan Belcher, who later became governor of Massachusetts. German miners were imported, a smelter and ore-crushing apparatus were constructed, and a mineshaft sloping downward at an angle of 23 degrees was dug 120 feet eastward into the side of the Metacomet Ridge. Ultimately, this shaft was expanded by ore removal to form a cavern 100 by 180 feet. The mine was entered and ore was removed through two vertical shafts, one twenty-five feet, the other approximately seventy feet in depth. As flooding from water seepage was a constant problem, a three hundred-foot drainage tunnel was excavated westward through basalt rock exiting the side of the ridge.

The ore was excavated by pick and shovel and blasting; a sandstone stratum approximately six feet thick was removed from between two strata of basalt. The ore, between 2 and 5 percent copper with trace elements of silver and uranium, was broken with hammers into cobbles approximately six inches in diameter and then graded. Cobbles with sufficient copper content were crushed and shipped to smelters either at Simsbury or in Bristol, England. Chalcocite was a difficult ore to process given the smelting technologies of the eighteenth century. Disagreements among the partners made the mine unprofitable, and the mine–the earliest and largest copper mine in eighteenth century British North America–was closed in 1741. In 1755, the property was acquired by John Viets, who, after several unsuccessful attempts to revive the mine, leased it in 1773 to the colony of Connecticut for use as a prison.

Crime and the Construction of a Prison

Crime in eighteenth century Connecticut was punished in three ways: by fines, incarceration in county jails, or public execution. These punishments included such penalties as sitting in the stocks, whipping, branding, and, at the most extreme, hanging. County jails, for the most part wooden structures, were used for holding persons awaiting trial, debtors, and those convicted of minor misdemeanors, with most incarcerations lasting less than six months. The goal of the legal system was quick resolution of an indictment, and most punishments meant the threat of impoverishment or public shame. Long-term incarceration as a punishment was not used in eighteenth century Connecticut.

Although its official name, New-Gate Prison, was chosen in an apparent attempt to emulate the notorious Newgate Prison of London, England, the purpose of New-Gate was to provide an alternative to what the Connecticut general assembly considered “infamous punishments,” such as branding. Crimes punishable by confinement included burglary, highway robbery, forgery, counterfeiting, rape, arson, and horse stealing. Most sentences were to be for a period of three years, or lifetime incarceration for a third offense. Criminals were to be “profitably” employed by working the mine; by housing them in cabins in the mine, it was thought it “would be next to impossible for any person to escape.” However, the first prisoner, John Hinson, confined for burglary in 1773, successfully escaped after eighteen days with the help of his lover, who dropped a rope down an unsecured mine shaft. Of the next five prisoners committed to the mine, two were killed in a cave while attempting to dig themselves out, and the remaining three escaped two weeks later. By May, 1774, all prisoners confined at the mine had either died or successfully absconded.

Efforts were made to improve security by constructing a wooden blockhouse over the mine entrance shaft, blocking the drainage tunnel and other shafts, and installing guards. Escapes and deaths continued, however, and little ore was mined. After 1775, Connecticut used the mine to confine political prisoners (Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution). These men, committed to a cause and more motivated than ordinary prisoners, proved dangerous: They rioted. Between 1775 and 1782, there were twelve riots, sixty-two escapes, and the prison buildings burned three times. The last riot, in November, 1782, resulted not only in the destruction of the blockhouse but also in the death of a guard. The prison was closed and all prisoners removed to county jails.

The prison, now surrounded by a wooden pale fence topped with iron spikes, was revived in 1790. As the lower (eastern) end of the mine cavern was flooded, cabins for housing prisoners were constructed only in the upper (western) end. A brick guardhouse was constructed over the mine entrance for housing guards, and a brick forge house with eight blacksmith forges built. The prisoners were now to be employed making nails. In 1802, the wooden pale fence was replaced with a twelve-foot-high wall of sandstone blocks, enclosing approximately three quarters of an acre. In 1805, a brick hospital building was erected inside the compound, followed in 1814 by an attached brick chapel.

Conditions in this prison, even by late eighteenth century standards, were abysmal. The prison was overcrowded, with the prisoner population ranging from forty-four to seventy-seven inmates, all male. The mine was cramped, constantly damp, and unlit; the prisoners lived in darkness. Brought aboveground during the day, prisoners were chained by neck and leg fetters to their forges and given a daily production quota of nine pounds of nails. Failing to produce the quota or committing an infraction of prison rules was punished by whipping. Prison food, which consisted mostly of beef and pork, was cooked by the prisoners at their forges after being tossed to them by the guards. Lacking bathing facilities, the prisoners were dirty and unkempt. Riots and escapes were frequent, resulting in the death of several prisoners. Despite these conditions, the state opened the prison to tourists, attracting approximately five thousand visitors per year. In 1807, English visitor Edward Kendall observed of the prison: “If it be to reform, it is one of the weakest of all human projects; if to punish, it is one of the most barbarous.” Others, such as John Pease and John Niles, defended the prison as “consistent with their [the prisoners] security and the economy of the public treasury.”

In 1819, a legislative oversight committee found the prison “contracted, filthy, and wretched” and nail manufacturing unprofitable. Reforms were attempted, and nail making was replaced with boot and shoe making, coopering, basket weaving, and light smith work. Whipping as a punishment was replaced with a wheel that powered a gristmill used to supply the prison kitchen with flour. In 1824, a four-story stone cell block building was erected, and prisoners were removed from the mine. With these improved conditions, four women were incarcerated for adultery, but the prison still proved inadequate. The prisoner population grew to 124 inmates, sanitation was poor, the cells were small and overcrowded, and in 1827, the prison was abandoned and all prisoners removed.

At least twenty prisoners died and were buried in an unmarked burial ground in the fifty-four years New-Gate was used as a prison. The present location of this burial lot is unknown.

Nineteenth Century Mining and a Museum

In an attempt to revive the mine, the Phoenix Mining Company, under the leadership of Richard Bacon, purchased the property in 1830. The prison forge house was demolished, a steam engine and other equipment were installed in its place, and the flooded portions of the mine pumped out. Some working may have been done in the mine but most effort seems to have been directed at recovering unprocessed tailings left by the colonial miners. The company failed in 1837, and Bacon then used the mine to manufacture the Bickford Safety Fuse, the first reliable blasting fuse to be used by miners. This enterprise, predecessor to the Engsin Bickford Corporation, was moved to Avon, Connecticut. In 1855, one last attempt at mining was made, but it failed in the depression of 1859, and the mine was permanently closed.

With the cessation of mining, New-Gate again became a tourist attraction. In the later part of the nineteenth century, the guardhouse was used as a dwelling, and visitors, for a fee, were allowed to explore the mine and prison buildings unescorted. In 1891, the Viets family repurchased the property. Lawns and picnic tables were installed, an observation platform was constructed atop the four-story cell-block building for viewing the Farmington Valley, and the prison grounds were used for family reunions. Unfortunately, many of the prison buildings, including the cell block, were destroyed in a 1904 fire.

The property became a commercial tourist attraction in 1926 with the organization of the New-Gate Historical Corporation. Guided tours of the mine were offered, the guardhouse became a dance hall, other buildings housed a restaurant and antique shop, and a new observation tower was built. Added attractions to this eclectic mix included a caged bear, antique cars, a World War I tank, and a wax figure of Ruth Judd, strapped in an electric chair. Goats were allowed to roam the grounds freely. The state of Connecticut purchased the property in 1968, removed the shop, restaurant, extraneous exhibits, and the observation platform and restored the site as a museum. In 1973, New-Gate was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

New-Gate is historically significant for many reasons. The geology of the mine offers insight into the processes of mineral formation that accompany plate tectonics, and it has been extensively studied by geologists from the University of Connecticut. The mine is an important chapter in American engineering history, providing a record of colonial mining methods and technology. Recently, archaeological investigations have examined both the mining and penal history of the site. Its use as a historic place tracks the development of Americans’ sense of, and the use of, history. In these many respects, New-Gate is a significant historical landmark, but as a prison, it represents one of the most appalling chapters in American penal history.

For Further Information
  • Domonell, William G. Newgate: From Copper Mine to State Prison. Simsbury, Conn.: Simsbury Historical Society, 1998. Examines the recent history of the site. A more complete bibliography of sources can be found in this publication.
  • Kendall, Edward Augustus. Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808. 3 vols. New York: I. Riley, 1809. Offers a contemporary description of the prison.
  • Pease, John C., and John M. Niles. A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island. Hartford, Conn.: William S. Marsh, 1819. Contains a contemporary description of the prison.
  • Perrin, John. Geology of the Newgate Prison Mine of East Granby, Connecticut. Storrs: University of Connecticut, Department of Geology and Geophysics, 1967. A discussion of the geology of New-Gate can be found in this master’s thesis.
  • Phelps, Richard H. A History of Newgate of Connecticut. Albany, N.Y.: J. Munsell, 1860. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
  • _______. Newgate of Connecticut: Its Origin and Early History, Being a Full Description of the Famous and Wonderful Simsbury Mines and Caverns, and the Prison Built over Them. Hartford, Conn.: American, 1876. New and expanded ed. Camden, Maine: Picton Press, 1996. Two versions of Phelps’s history of the prison.
Categories: History