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The Mysterious History of The Newport Tower
Location of The Newport Tower in Touro Park, on a hill overlooking Narragansett Bay
The Newport Tower
Nobody knows for sure where it came from or who built it or why, but right smack in the middle of Newport, Rhode Island, at the top of Mill Street, in Touro Park, stands an odd, circular stone structure known to locals as " The Old Stone Mill" and to the world as " The Newport Tower."
Most people think it was built as a grist mill, by the first colonial governor of Rhode Island, Benedict Arnold. (No, not that Benedict Arnold--his grandfather) Arnold owned the property on which the Newport Tower stands and mentions his " stone built grist wind mill "in his will-- so it makes sense that maybe The Newport Tower is the remains of Arnold's grist mill, built to grind corn for the growing town of Newport..
That has always been the prevailing theory, Circular windmills of similar construction were not unknown in the part of England Arnold came from. Some historians think The Newport Tower was modeled after the 17th century Chesterton Mill in Warwickshire, and radiocarbon dating seems to point to a 17th century origin as well.
However, there are some important ways in which the Newport Tower differs from most 17th century grist mills. The most puzzling thing is that clearly, there was once a loft or second storey to the Newport Tower and that up there, just above where the joists and floorboards would have been, is a fireplace built into the wall. A fireplace in a gristmill full of flammable grain and dust just does not make sense.
There is also some indication that the structure was already there when English colonists arrived on the scene and the town of Newport was founded. But,more importantly there are also a couple of much more excitingly romantic possibilities.
The Chesterton Windmill
The Chesterton Windmill in Warwickshire, England.may have served as a model for The Newport Tower. There are certain similarities but also several important differences between the two structures.
Excavations around the Newport Tower have yielded no items earlier than the 17th century and carbon dating also points to a 17th century origin. Nevertheless, the romance of Viking, Portuguese or even 15th century Chinese origin persists.
The Vikings Built It
Every school child in Newport when I was a kid, knew that the Vikings got to America long before Christopher Columbus because we had the "Old Stone Mill" to prove it. We learned about the Vikings in school and were carefully told about the Viking theory of the Newport Tower We also took field trips to the tower and read the famous Longfellow poem about an imaginary Viking warrior's skeleton in the Newport Tower (The Skeleton In Armor) Like the public at large, we found it all thrilling and much more exciting than the notion of a colonial grist mill.
The theory that the Old Stone Mill was built by Vikings and that Newport might have been the legendary Vinland of the Viking Sagas dates back to the 1830's when a Danish archeologist, Carl Christian Rafn, who was particularly interested in proving the validity of Norse presence in North America as outlined in the ancient Norse Sagas, posited that The Newport Tower was originally part of a Norse settlement on the East Coast of North America. He presented as evidence runic inscriptions he found in Massachusetts.
His ideas were not taken seriously by Anglo Saxon scholars at the time, but the academic community thought again when physical evidence of a Viking presence in North America confirmed Rafn's thinking. The discovery of Viking ruins at L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland,and the much disputed Kensington Runestone in Minnesota , as well as the discovery of what purports to be a runic inscription from the 1000's in the Newport Tower itself, have led to new interest in The mysterious structure and a second look at its possible origins.
Who Built The Newport Tower?
The Vikings may be the most popular contenders for builders of the Newport tower, but they are far from the only possibilities. In 1993, former submarine captain Gavin Menzies published a book called 1421: the year China discovered the world. in which he made a case for The Newport Tower having been built in 1421 by Chinese mariners. There is also the Portuguese theory, favored by historian Edmund Delabarre who theorized that the Newport Tower was constructed by Portuguese navigator Miguel Cort-Real who Delabarre thought Cort-Real was shipwrecked in the area while searching for his lost brother, Gaspar, in Narragansett Bay. The evidence for such a theory is flimsy at best, being based on the presence of octagonal rotundas in Portugal which bear some relationship to The Newport Tower. Local historian, Jim Egan, makes a logical and historically documented case for the Tower being the result of an aborted, now forgotten attempt by the English to colonize America fifty years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Other investigators have proposed that The Newport Tower is an ancient astronomical observatory, or was built by the Knight's Templar who fled Europe for the Americas in 1398 under the leadership of Henry Sinclair It is said that a vast Templar treasure is buried somewhere in North America. But of all this, there is little proof.
In the meantime, suffice it to say that the jury is still very much out on who build the Newport Tower. It could have been the Vikings.. It probably wasn't the Chinese or the Portuguese. Whoever built it, it remains mysterious to me and a treasured icon of my childhood.
It is often overlooked by visitors who come to Newport for the beautiful beaches, the fine dining and vibrant nightlife, or the history of the place as 19th century summer playground for the very rich. Dazzled by the " summer cottages" of the Vanderbilts and Astors, visitors don't always see the unassuming stone tower in Touro Park that just may be the most amazing and mysterious structure in town. If you go to Newport, be sure to stop by and have a look at it.
Interesting Scholarly Conclusions by JIm Egan
Additional Web Resources on The Newport Tower
- ONE New England - Mysteries of the Newport Tower – Still Unsolved
An excellent, well researched text gathering all relevant info and great photos to answer the question: Who built the Tower?
- UnexplainedEarth: Newport's Mystery Tower
For over a century debate has raged over the identity of the builders of this structure. Speculation has ranged from the Norse to the Chinese to the Norwegians and Swedes. Most archeologists maintain that the tower was built in Colonial times and tha
- Chronognostic Research Foundation - 1
Chronognostic Research Foundation. Who built the Newport Tower-- recent archeological investigation using new techniques
- The Newport Tower
a wbsite prepared using spherical geometry and google earth to posit a new theory of who built the Newport Tower and why.
- Report on the Newport Tower by the Newport Historical Society
Summary of a 1997 report on the Tower by the Newport Historical Society
- Newport Tower Radiocarbon Dates