The origins of the 17th century stone Newport Tower remain an enduring Rhode Island mystery. In a sunny neighborhood park just off Bellevue Avenue, a mere 10-minute stroll from beautiful Newport Harbor, sits one of Rhode Island’s enduring mysteries. These days, it’s most often known as the Newport Tower. Some time ago it was called […]
By Joe Bills
Apr 20 2016
Rhode Island’s Newport Tower: a onetime windmill
dating from the 1670s—
or a Viking-era church from five centuries earlier? These ancient stones hold their
In a sunny neighborhood park just off Bellevue Avenue, a mere 10-minute stroll from beautiful Newport Harbor, sits one of Rhode Island’s enduring mysteries. These days, it’s most often known as the Newport Tower. Some time ago it was called the Viking Tower. Before that it was the Old Stone Mill. Before that, it was Benedict Arnold’s Mill. And before that … Well, that’s where the mystery comes in. What, if anything, was it before that?
In pictures, the Tower sometimes has a Gothic feel, but up close, in the bright sunshine, it seems smaller than expected: a slightly oblong, roofless cylinder of fieldstone crouching on eight not-quite-evenly-spaced columns, about 24 feet in diameter and 26 to 28 feet high (depending on who’s measuring and where). Seven small openings—windows perhaps—dot the upper section in what seems to be a random pattern.
Although the mystery surrounding its origin is its claim to fame, there’s little doubt that it’s one of the oldest manmade structures in New England. Its documented history stretches back to the 1670s, when most people believe it was built by Governor Benedict Arnold (grandfather of the Revolutionary War traitor). Some say it was intended as a windmill, to replace the town’s wooden windmill, lost in a hurricane. Others believe it was constructed first as a harbor lookout and later converted into a windmill. What’s certain is that in 1677, when Arnold drafted his will, he referred to “my stone-built windmiln,” located on the same lot where his mansion then stood. After Arnold’s death in 1678, there’s little mention of the Tower in the public record. It was used, from time to time, as a haymow or a munitions storehouse.
Things got stirred up in 1837 when a Dane named Charles Rafn published a book titled Antiquitatis Americanae, tracing evidence of Norse voyages to America. The romantic notion of early Viking visits captured the public imagination, and soon people started seeing “evidence” of Viking visits where they never had before. When Rafn published a supplement to his book in 1839, it included the theory that the Newport Tower was originally a Norse church, built in the 12th century by Erik, Bishop of Gardar.
For a long time, the Vikings eclipsed Arnold as the favored builders of the Tower. In 1942, Philip Means wrote a book devoted to the Tower and supporting the Viking theory. His builder of choice, though, was Erik Gnupsson, appointed Bishop of the Greenlanders in 1121; he was known to have traveled to Vinland (today’s Newfoundland) a few years later.
From that point forward, it was almost as though the advent of a new Tower origin story was an annual tradition. One suggested that it was built by Paul Knutson, who came to Vinland in the 1350s to search for a settlement that had vanished from the western coast of Greenland.
But the theories didn’t end there: The Tower was built by Chinese sailors who visited Newport in 1421; by Scotland’s Sir Henry Sinclair in the 1390s; by Gaspard and Miguel Corte-Real, Portuguese brothers shipwrecked in the early 1500s, as a beacon for potential rescuers. It was a castle built by 11th-century Welsh Prince Madoc; a 14th-century shrine built by the Knights Templar; a watchtower built by Bronze Age Celts; a spotting tower used by Basque whale hunters …
So far, scientific analysis and archaeological digs haven’t favored the more creative interpretations of the Tower’s origin. A 1949 study, in fact, found several indicators—including a square-heeled footprint and a clay pipe at the bottom of the original trench, and a fragment of Colonial pottery among the stones of a footing—that support the theory that the Tower is “only” 350 years old, give or take a few. More recently, this hypothesis was backed up by carbon dating of the Tower’s limestone mortar, again confirming a Colonial-era date.
No matter which theory you subscribe to, the Newport Tower is a literal monument to American history, already 100 years old (at least) at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. The Tower has been the object of a hundred stories and has stood silent witness to countless more.
No matter who originally stacked them, these stones have an amazing story to tell.