From Interstate 691, while enroute from home in Gettysburg to a nearly year-old great-niece I had not yet hugged, I spied poking out of the trees near the top of a granite mountain at the outskirts of Meriden, Conn., a structure with the appearance of a super-sized rook from a giant chess set.
“What the heck is a castle doing out here,” I wondered aloud to my travel partner.
“What do you think we pull off at the next exit and see if we can find it?”
“We could,” she replied.
What we first found was Hubbard Park — at least the visible-from-the-road portion. The park, it turns out, is 1,800 acres. I spied an engraved wood sign I thought might give me instructions to find the castle. It was a trail map of the park. A man was coming down the trail, so I introduced myself and asked what he knew of the castle.
His name was Sal, and he was a first generation American, son of Sicilian immigrants who still lived in the area. Clad in slacks, a dark blue jacket and gray flat hat the style-name of which escapes me, he looked as though he had just left a sidewalk café in Naro, the town from which his parents hailed.
Sal had been hunting Hen of the Woods mushrooms. They grow rather large — “I picked one 39 pounds,” he said of a past hunting trip. the mushrooms are good for the immune system, he said, and scientists are making them grow artificially, to be sold at $18 an ounce. Sal searches for them in the wild, and cans and eats them.
One has to be careful about picking the Hen of the Woods on metal-polluted ground. Sal learned to find good mushrooms on trips to Sicily with his parents. He has some favorite trees from which he gains his harvest. They seem to be working as healthy food choice — his dad is 95, his mom 93.
He knew about the castle, as well. The road he pointed out wound 4.7 miles, past the Meriden reservoir, to the mountain top, where we found the tower. It’s called Castle Craig, but it’s not really a whole castle; just the tower — a hollow cylinder one containing a 48-step (with 6 landings) staircase. And engraved stone proclaims the peak, at 976 feet, to be the highest point within 25 miles of the coast from Maine to Florida.
To the south, we could see Long Island Sound. When I get home, I’ll check the Delorme and see how far it was, but well over 40 miles, I’d wager.
“Its design origins are clouded,” the engraving explains. “Some say its native Trap Rock construction resembles Norman watchtowers on Europe’s Rhine River, while others claim it was modeled and named after an ancient castle in Scotland.
Meriden (Sal pronounced it Merry-den) industrialist Walter Hubbard donated the tower and the 1,800 acre park to the town. It was dedicated Oct. 29, 1900.
We let Grady the Golden Retriever have a romp chasing a stick, then fed ourselves and continued on our way to visit a nearly year-old great niece, eager to search forests near our own home for Hen of the Woods mushrooms, and glad for the view from the top of Castle Craig.