Newport is a seaside city on Aquidneck Island (formerly known as Rhode Island) in Narragansett Bay southeast of Providence. Founded in 1639, this New England summer resort city is famous for its historic mansions and rich sailing history. It is also known for being home to the first U.S. Open tournaments in both tennis and golf, as well as for being the location of the “Summer White Houses” during both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Newport grew to be the largest of the four original settlements which eventually became the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Many of the first colonists were either Baptists or European Jews who were fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.
In 1663, after receiving its royal charter, the colony of Rhode Island saw Benedict Arnold elected as the first governor of Newport. By the middle of the 18th century, a second wave of Portuguese Jews had made the city prosperous, having brought with them their commercial experience, connections, capital, and an enterprising spirit. Soon, the manufacture of sperm oil became one of Newport’s leading industries, with Newport developing no less than 17 manufacturers of oil and candles. It even enjoyed a practical monopoly in the industry until the American Revolution. The famous 18th century Goddard and Townsend furniture was also made in Newport.
Unfortunately, like numerous colonial American cities, Newport was also a major center of the slave trade. Sugar and molasses originally produced in the Caribbean were both distilled into rum in Rhode Island and then transported to West Africa in exchange for more captives. By 1764, Rhode Island had about 30 rum distilleries, 22 of which were located in Newport alone. In fact, in some years over 90% of slave-trading voyages launched from North America issued from tiny Rhode Island, many of which originated in Newport. This was in direct violation of a 1787 state law prohibiting residents of the state from trading in slaves, as well as other federal statutes (1794, 1800) barring Americans from carrying slaves to ports outside the U.S., and even a 1807 Congressional act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade as a whole!
In 1727, Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James, printed the Rhode-Island Almanack in Newport. In 1732, he also published the city’s first newspaper — the Rhode Island Gazette. And in 1758, his son, James, founded Mercury, the city’s weekly newspaper. The city was also the birthplace of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who commanded ships during the War of 1812 and the Mexican–American War (1846–1848). He even played a leading role in the opening up of Japan to the West with the 1854 Convention of Kanagawa.
By the turn of the 20th century, many of the nation’s wealthiest families, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors, were summering in Newport and competing to see who could construct the largest “cottage” there, such as The Breakers (1895, below) and Miramar. The Newport Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile public access walkway that borders the shore line, provides impressive views of The Breakers and other prominent Gilded Age mansions and has been designated a National Recreation Trail, the first in New England. Unfortunately, it was closed for almost 2 years after Hurricane Sandy washed away large sections of it in 2012, requiring over $5 million in restoration work.
- Visited: May 1985
- National Register of Historic Places: 1971 (The Breakers)
- National Historic Landmark: 1994 (The Breakers)
- National Recreation Trail: 1975 (Newport Cliff Walk)