50@50 Newport RI
Newport is renowned for its audacious display of wealth, yachting, and its jazz festival. But there’s so much more to its current culture. The oldest tavern as well as the oldest lending library in America is here. As I researched, Newport’s vast and complex cultural history seemed overwhelming. But I’d flown into Boston for a music festival, and Newport seemed like an ideal detour for this blog, especially in late summer. But hiking?? Hmmm.
In northern states, it all starts with the glaciers. Retreating slowly, Rhode Island became free of ice about 15,000 years ago. With much of the continent north still glacially engulfed, the seas were still 150 feet lower than today. Newport was far from the sea and Aquidneck Island, an indigenous word meaning “Isle of Peace”, bordered inland valleys instead of bays.
Although much of the archeological remains are now under water, evidence places the ancestors of the Narragansett people in the area before the glacial retreat. Thus, when early Europeans arrived, the landscape was hardly uninhabited. Documents reported that thousands of Indians were living by agriculture and sustenance and organized under powerful chiefs. The Narragansett, known warriors, offered protection to smaller tribes amidst ever-shifting tribal rivalries. They had created sophisticated land management and fishing practices. Newport’s terrain, with sandy shores, is rocky, and hilly and forested in the early 17th century. An existing village of cleared landscape made it very attractive to English settlers.
They came fleeing from Massachusetts to practice their religious beliefs. To wrestle Aquidneck from the indigenous people was tricky because it was a royal seat for the local chief. Roger Williams negotiated a swap. Newport was committed to religious freedom and built on tolerance. Many colonists became Baptists. A large number of Quakers also settled in Newport. Jews fleeing the Inquisition in 1658 were granted settlement in Newport after being denied in New York. The town’s commercial rise was begun by the second wave of Portuguese Jews who brought with them capital and connections. Jacob Rivera arrived in 1745 and introduced the production of sperm oil. Residents, already engaged in whaling, created 17 manufacturers of the oil and candles which monopolized trade into the Revolution.
By the 1760’s Newport thrived as one of the five leading ports in the colonies. The ensuing growth led to a building boom of hundreds institutional buildings and houses. Today, Newport contains the largest number of colonial buildings in the country. In the fall of 1776, the British took Newport – its strategic location protected New York. Patriots constituted over half the population merely left. Deciding to concentrate their forces in New York, the British abandoned the town three years later. The war decimated Newport’s economy since military occupation closed all trade.
Surpassed by cities like New York and Boston, Newport became frozen in time. Discriminated against in other colonies, the Irish immigrated here in the 1820’s allowed to work at Fort Adams. During the early to mid – 19th century, Newport’s picturesque atmosphere began to attract artists, writers, scientists, architects and summer visitors. Rooming houses were built to accommodate them.
Newport’s landscape is quite breezy – refreshing to those battling humid, sticky, buggy climates. Wealthy southern planters began building summer cottages in 1839. By mid-century rich northern city-dwellers also began seeking Newport’s respite. The “cottages” got bigger and more ostentatious. The 1913 income tax bill ended the rivalry. The Newport Historical Society owns several “Gilded Age” homes and I toured three houses. Amazing is how many continue to be privately owned. The wind and the water are also ideal for sailing. The Newport Yacht Club was organized in 1894, and today one can tour the bay in a premier racing sailboat.
For the most part, my hiking was focused on city walks. Exploring the colonial city consumed many miles. The Cliff Walk (3.5 miles – somewhat interrupted) lines the eastern shore of Newport running behind many of the biggest 19th century mansions. Here you can truly feel the forces that crash against the shore’s rocky outcroppings. The Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown feels a world away, yet is only about 3 miles from the Newport city limit. Allowed to naturalize (with some help from habitat restoration scientists), the eastern and southern trails are vastly different and both informative in trying to understand what the rest of the southern sector of the island may have looked like in the past.
So, how did Jazz come to Newport? The history reads like a film noir “The wheels had been set in motion…on a wintry evening in 1953. I was tending to my usual business…” Newport citizen elites, Louis and Elaine Lorillard came to jazz performer and promoter George Wein and asked him to bring jazz to Newport in the summer. He had the idea for a festival, but he only had Tanglewood as a model. Hard to conceive today, but “…the jazz world in the ’50s was heading in several directions at once. Musicians and critics alike were beginning to call for the acceptance of jazz as a legitimate art form. This was not an easy task, given jazz’s outmoded image. It was even controversial within the jazz world, which was now steeped in conflict over “traditional’ versus “modern.” The initial Newport Jazz festival in 1954 created something new within the genre. While jazz “greats” dominated the spotlight, emerging voices from traditional to avant-garde along with panels addressing the academic approach to music attracted critics and provided the festival with the artistic credibility that continues today.
So the progression of landscape shaping culture here in Newport is circuitous, but none-the-less fascinating. And as so often happens, it was music that brought me here.
 The island on which Newport is situated
 The landscape’s geology is complicated – though very exciting if you’re a geologist. Rhode Island sits upon the Avalon terrane – once part of the micro-continent Avalonia off of Africa. http://blogs.agu.org/mountainbeltway/2010/08/20/purgatory-conglomerate/
 I’ve skipped a very important chapter in the city’s history because it doesn’t connect directly with the landscape-present-culture line. King Phillip’s War of 1675-76 remains one of the most important 17th century Native American battles.