The Tower: no one knows who built it, or when, or why. But they have a lot of theories.
The Tower: no one knows who built it, or when, or why. But they have a lot of theories.

Mystery Tower of Newport

Field review by the editors.

Newport, Rhode Island

People have been arguing about the Mystery Tower of Newport for nearly 200 years. Some think it was built by the Vikings (1150), others by the Knights Templar (1398), or the Chinese (1421), the Portuguese (1501), the English (1583), or the American colonists (1660). Whoever built it put a lot of time and sweat into the project. The Tower, what's left of it, contains over 450 tons of rock.

A promenade spot for Newport's fashionable elite in the early 20th century.
A promenade spot for Newport's fashionable elite in the early 20th century.

The local Museum of Newport History, which doesn't even have an exhibit about the Tower (we asked), says that it's just the base of a windmill, built by 17th century settlers -- but since no records exist of its construction, how do they know? Why would settlers spend their energy and resources building a 450-ton windmill?

Many visitors, however, feel that the Tower was already standing, and mysterious, when the first colonists arrived.

As far back as the 1830s the Tower was credited to the Vikings, a pedigree that pleased the public, led to the Tower's preservation in a public park, and raised its notoriety to the point where it became one of America's earliest attractions. "People in the 1800s loved the Tower," said Jim Egan, who runs the Newport Tower Museum across the street. "It was the Number One tourist destination for all of Rhode Island." The Tower was a favorite subject for early artists and souvenir-hawkers, its lumpy likeness plastered onto shaving mugs, spoons, serving trays, beer steins, thimbles, teapots, decorative plates, and candy dishes. It was always labeled "The Old Stone Mill," but that was a polite fiction; most people believed that it was really something else.

Winter solstice sunrise shines directly through two of the Tower's windows.
Winter solstice sunrise shines directly through two of the Tower's windows.

By the 20th century, postcards -- a reliable barometer of the popular mind -- started adding "Ancient Viking Tower" to their printed descriptions. When Newport opened a new hotel in 1925, the public was invited to name it. The winner: Hotel Viking.

Massachusetts and Virginia ("Very powerful states," said Jim Egan) downplayed the Tower's significance by promoting themselves as the founders of European settlement in America. "They treat us like second class citizens," Jim said, "but Rhode Island kicked butt back then."

Even if the Tower wasn't erected until the 1580s, as Jim believes, that would still make it the oldest Colonial building in the continental United States, and worthy of all those shaving mugs and postcards. Yet Jim has had no luck interesting local archeologists or historians in exploring the Tower's past. "Oxygen samples taken deep within the mortar date the air to the 1500s," Jim told us, but officialdom and academia apparently don't want to accept it.

"All this stuff that happened in the 1500s gets ignored," Jim said, "because everyone thinks New England history started in 1620."

Also see: Newport Tower Museum

Mystery Tower of Newport

Touro Park

Address:
Touro Park St. W., Newport, RI
Directions:
Downtown, in Touro Park. On the south side of Mill St., one block west of Bellevue Ave.
Hours:
Lit at night.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Newport Tower MuseumNewport Tower Museum, Newport, RI - < 1 mi.
JFK's Rejected Grave SlabJFK's Rejected Grave Slab, Newport, RI - < 1 mi.
The Feet and the WaveThe Feet and the Wave, Newport, RI - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Imagine Cow Parade Herd, Warren, RI - 17 mi.

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November 15, 2018

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