OldNew-GatePrison tavern gets rehab grant

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Jul. 18—The 2 1/2-century-old pub, where one source says convicts were allowed to drink if they also could buy their guards a round, "is foundational to understanding early American incarceration and the rise of the criminal justice system," Bengel said Tuesday.

Exterior painting, re-roofing and foundation stabilization were completed in 2019, she said. The first step for the interior project is to hire an architect and engineer. Work toward the goal of "a functional building" that can welcome some of the 11,000 people who now visit the prison and mine each year will include floor and ceiling stabilization, Bengel said. She said she did not have a timeline for completion.

Dr. John Viets first came to what was known in 1710 as Turkey Hills and in 1712 was "granted the liberty by the Town to keep a house of public entertainment," according to "The Heritage of Granby: 1786-1965" (Salmon Brook Historical Society).

Copper ore had been found on the site in 1705 and it became one of the first commercial mines in the colonies. The mine, however, could not make a profit at a time when the mother country controlled most commerce, and work was abandoned in the 1750s.

John Viets's son, also named John, was born in 1712 and worked for a time in the mines with his brother, Henry, according to a family genealogy. Viets was a lieutenant and then captain of militia, a farmer, store keeper and "extensive trader," according to the genealogy by Francis Hubbard Viets. The National Park Service says Viets built the tavern near the failed copper mine in 1755.

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Connecticut leaders established a prison at the mine site in 1773 and named Viets warden. The first prisoners were kept underground from about 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. in dark, damp and cold confinement. An archaeologist who has studied the site says there's evidence that prisoners starved. Inmates included men convicted of crimes ranging from murder to adultery and also those who would be called political prisoners today.

"During the early years of the War for Independence," the family genealogy says, "(Capt. John Viets) did good service for the patriot cause by keeping Tory prisoners in durance (imprisonment) at Newgate."

Inmates were put to work making nails and other jobs, but some apparently were better off than others. In "Newgate in Connecticut: Its Origins and Early History," 19th century author Richard H. Phelps wrote that the tavern "was an especial accommodation, not only for travellers, but for the better sort of convicts. He who could muster the needful change, would prevail on some one of the guard to escort him over the way to the inn of the merry old gentleman, where his necessities and those of his escort were amply supplied at the bar."

The tavern served visitors and others associated with the prison until Newgate closed in 1827. Much like other public houses of the time, it was an important place for political exchange in the community, according to the National Park Service.

The museum site today includes ruins of the above-ground portion of the prison, the guardhouse and other buildings. Much altered and expanded over the years, the tavern includes seven fireplaces and a ballroom with a barrel ceiling, according to the National Register of Historic Places inventory form. John Viets's son, Luke, continued operating the tavern until 1834 and it was listed on a map in 1869 as the site of B.F. Barker's Hotel. A tavern sign that was photographed but subsequently lost in a fire shows crossed keys with the date 1790 and "L. Viets." The state acquired the property in the early 1970s for $53,000.

Preservation of Viets Tavern, National Park Service spokesperson Ellie Stuckrath said, "will help tell a more complete history of incarceration in our nation."

The grant money comes from a program marking the 250th anniversary of the nation's founding and is meant to support 20 projects in 14 states, according to the federal agency.