DescriptionSettled in 1639, the small agricultural outpost of Newport had established itself as a shipbuilding center as early as 1646. Said to be among the deepest natural ports in the country, it was one of America’s top seaports by the 1760s, rivaling Boston, Charleston and New York.
Newport merchants engaged in the trade and exportation of candles, fish and silver and participated in the triangle trade. Some 150 wharves bustled with activity.
Today, the seaport atmosphere remains. Once the hub of Colonial commerce, cobblestone wharves on the waterfront off Thames Street remain busy. Restored 18th- and 19th-century commercial shops at Bowen's and Bannister’s wharves house galleries, boutiques and restaurants, and the harbor where schooners delivered goods now is packed with elegant yachts and lobster boats.
Notable historical events that shaped the Revolution occurred just a few blocks inland. French general Count de Rochambeau greeted George Washington at the 1739 Old Colony House in Washington Square. The building is said to be the nation's second-oldest capitol; the first Catholic masses celebrated in the state were held here 1780-81. In addition, The Declaration of Independence was read from its balcony, and the Federal Constitution was ratified in the building in 1790. Dwight David Eisenhower, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were said to have been entertained here.
Trade all but stopped when the British occupied Newport 1776-79, limiting access to the harbor. The French then took over until 1783, leaving the town in near economic despair.
The area was reborn as a resort town when the country’s wealthiest citizens recognized its promise as a vacation spot. Beginning in the mid-1800s, Newport attracted prosperous planters, coal barons, railroad magnates and successful traders and merchants who built extravagant summer homes overlooking the Rhode Island Sound.
Such families as the Astors and Vanderbilts hired noted architect Richard Morris Hunt, venerated for his 19th-century adaptation of the Beaux-Arts style, to design their mansions.
Newport became the hot spot for the elite. Indicative of the snobbery of the “new” Newport, Caroline Astor was credited with creating the “400,” a list of families with traceable lineage; it is said to be the first American social register. Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower later spent vacations in Newport at Hammersmith Farm and Eisenhower Summer House, respectively.
With the rich and the famous came refined recreational pursuits. Newport harbor gained prominence as a yachting center due to its deep water and steady winds. The arrival in the 1930s of the New York Yacht Club, defender of the America’s Cup 1851-1983, brought the sport into the local spotlight. Sailing remains a popular pastime—numerous charters are available, and visitors are sure to see handsome craft in the harbor.
Recreational sailing isn’t Newport’s only claim to maritime fame. Newport was the site of the Naval Academy during the Civil War; the Naval Training Station and the Naval War College were established in the 1880s. In the early 1900s Narragansett Bay was the principal anchorage for the Atlantic Fleet, which was protected by Fort Adams, one of the largest bastioned forts in the nation and guardian of the bay until 1945.
The fortifications still can be seen in Fort Adams State Park off Harrison Avenue. The fort houses Sail Newport, a public sailing school..
Newport continues to be a center for U.S. Navy activities with the Naval Underwater Warfare Center and numerous other schools that make up the Naval Education and Training Center.
The Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile walking path, skirts the surrounding bluffs between Easton's Beach and Bailey's Beach. The trail, rough at points, affords beautiful vistas of the rocky coastline and glimpses of the massive “cottages” tucked behind neatly manicured hedges. (Note: Portions of the Cliff Walk are narrow or directly on boulders hidden by foliage at the water's edge, with about a 70-foot drop. Wear good walking shoes and use extreme caution.)
Two-mile-long Claiborne Pell Bridge, commonly referred to as the Newport Bridge, connects Newport with Jamestown; there is a $4 charge to cross in either direction. Scenic Ocean Drive passes a series of private beaches and one public beach, Gooseberry Beach.
The Newport Winter Festival begins in mid-February with more than 150 activities including concerts, arts and crafts, a polar bear plunge, snow carving and ice sculpting. The Newport Flower Show, featuring horticultural seminars, a marketplace and garden party, takes place on the grounds of Rosecliff in late June. In early August, the world-class Newport Jazz Festival plays host to established and emerging jazz artists. The holiday season brings Christmas in Newport, a month-long citywide event starting in December; festivities include tree-lighting ceremonies, Polar Express train rides, historical tours, concerts, Victorian-era Christmas festivities and dining, culinary events, art lessons and the annual Governor's Ball. Christmas at the Newport Mansions is celebrated at The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House with concerts and holiday decorations.
Visitor InfoDiscover Newport 23 America's Cup Ave. NEWPORT, RI 02840. Phone:(401)845-9130 or (800)326-6030
ShoppingBrick Market Place I and II, Bowen's Wharf, Long Wharf Mall and Bannister's Wharf, along America's Cup Avenue near the harbor front, offer specialty shops in restored buildings. Bellevue Avenue, William Street, Franklin Street, Spring Street and Thames Street are prime hunting grounds for antiques.
Self-guiding toursA self-guiding walking tour of Historic Hill includes 26 informative plaques describing historic properties; maps can be obtained from Discover Newport. Other walking tours are available throughout the year. Many of Newport's mansions offer self-guiding audio tours.
Things to SeeAccess Tours of Newport