photos of Ted Hilton (predecessor of
Courant Staff Writer
HADDAM — For 57 years, Sunrise Resort has been Tina Peckingham's summer
retreat, a place where she, her children and grandchildren learned to
swim, canoe and dance.
Copyright © 2008,
The Hartford Courant
So when Peckingham heard that the 146-acre getaway in the town's woodsy
Moodus section was closing, she was upset.
"It's like they knocked the wind out of me. It's the only resort of its
kind in Connecticut," Peckingham, 62, of West Haven, said Monday.
This summer is the last for Sunrise Resort, the same kind of
old-fashioned memory maker featured in the movie "Dirty Dancing." The
regional landmark in the Connecticut River Valley will close after Labor
Day, ending a 92-year run as a vacation destination and scenic spot for
wedding receptions, company picnics, family reunions and outdoor
festivals. The state is interested in buying the land along the Salmon
River for use as a state campground.
On Monday, resort owner Jim Johnson said he was planning a "farewell
fireworks" show for Sunday night to mark the closing.
Sunrise began as a 3-acre resort in 1916 and grew steadily in popularity
in the 1920s, when owner Henry Engle partnered with Ted Hilton to expand
the place to accommodate a steady list of summer guests with active
outdoor itineraries. Johnson's great aunt, Dot Lindvall, who had worked
at the resort since 1937, bought the place in 1965 with her new husband,
Frank Davis, and ran it until 1986, when Johnson's family took
Campers and resort-goers alike visited Sunrise, where guests could
choose to stay at campsites, cabins, cottages, cabanas or motel rooms.
The same people returned each year for the resort's long list of outdoor
activities and home-cooked meals.
But Johnson said his parents (his father, Bob, worked as a bellhop at
Sunrise in the 1950s) are both age 71 and ready to retire. And Jim
Johnson and his brother are looking to start new ventures.
"It's time to move on," Johnson said. "We have a lot of land and a lot
of taxes that we have to pay. And the place is not in its heyday like it
used to be."
In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Moodus was home to as many as 40 resorts,
but affordable airline travel led local families to more faraway
"They invented something called the airplane," Johnson said. "Now, why
did they have to do that?"
After the Labor Day closing, the resort will remain open for private
parties and other already-scheduled functions until it is sold. Sunrise
has employed about 10 workers year-round and 80 to 100 in the summer,
Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental
Protection, confirmed Monday that the state is looking at the resort,
but said a deal has not been finalized.
"We are very interested in this property and we've been in discussion
with the property owners and the town," Schain said. "We are now working
on the structure of an agreement and working to secure funds for the
purchase. If we are able to do this, we will finalize the agreement and
schedule a closing."
When the family decided to sell the resort, Johnson said, they
considered a plan to build 89 homes, but local officials were concerned
about the impact of what would have been a large development in this
town of 8,300. Also, Johnson said he "wasn't comfortable" with offers
from people who wanted to continue running the resort.
"We could have made more money if the land was developed," Johnson said.
"But we think this is the best plan for the town and the state." He
declined to say how much the state would pay for the resort.
There are tentative plans to continue hosting the Great Connecticut
Cajun/Zydeco Music & Arts Festival at Sunrise — and possibly the East
Haddam fair. The Connecticut Jazz Festival is expected to move to
Mountain Ridge in Wallingford.
With a large swimming pool, tennis courts, shuffleboard, volleyball and
miniature golf, Sunrise would be unlike any other state park, James
Ventres, East Haddam's land use administrator, said.
For the town's part, East Haddam would help the state tear down various
buildings on the site in exchange for the town's use of the park for
such events as the local fair and summer concert series.
Though the town would lose Sunrise as a taxpayer — Ventres estimated a
loss of under $100,000 in annual taxes — he said the new campground
would generate income for local businesses from campers. He said state
ownership would also help East Haddam maintain much-desired open space.
"This will give people access to a gorgeous stretch of the river,"
But for Peckingham and others, a state park and campground won't be the
same. Earlier this month, families she has known for decades through
visits to the resort gathered on the last day of their vacations. They
had heard the place was closing.
"A lot of them were crying," Peckingham said.
This was, after all, the place where Hilton, the former owner,
celebrated Christmas in July with holiday decorations, snow-making
machines and silver dollars for children visiting from local orphanages.
"These are wonderful memories," Peckingham said. "You have no idea how
sad this is. I'm almost saying novenas hoping this whole deal falls
Contact Alaine Griffin at
To view photos from bygone days at Sunrise Resort, visit