City Spotlight: Newport, RI

Mention of Newport, Rhode Island generally elicits thoughts of extravagant wealth: palatial mansions, mega-yachts, possibly even Taylor Swift. Yet the charming seaside town comes from rather modest colonial roots, and is home to citizens of all socioeconomic classes. Commonly considered New England’s summer resort, Newport has far more to offer than its desirable coastline and summer visitors. Before we explore the city as it is today, however, let’s have a brief look at the history of Newport.

A Brief History of Newport

Newport, Rhode Island was founded in 1639 by English settlers seeking religious freedom from the Puritans in Boston. Intent on creating a community in which wide-ranging religious beliefs were welcomed, the founders incorporated a policy of ‘liberty of conscience and religion’ into the Newport Town Statutes of 1641. This policy was a beacon for settlers of varied religious beliefs, and the town grew rapidly as people came from different colonies to establish a new life in Newport.

Surprisingly, there existed a central paradox in the town’s early founding, which, though many recognized, was not to be addressed for more than a hundred years. Newport was notorious for being the major slave-trading port in the British Empire. It was a key operator in the “Triangular Trade,” wherein molasses was imported from the Caribbean to Newport, where it was then made into rum, which was shipped to Africa in exchange for slaves, who were then traded for molasses… and on, and on, the cycle continued. “Surplus” slaves, those not traded for molasses, were brought back to North America and sold to plantation owners.

Though Newport’s economy was mainly supported by the slave trade in its early history, over the course of the next several decades, Newport also began to enjoy the benefits of tourism. Namely, vacationers seeking to escape the oppressive summer heat in the Carolinas and the Caribbean found refuge in the coastal city. This additional revenue stream became vital after British occupation of the city during the American Revolution led to the collapse of Newport’s maritime trade.

Following this unfortunate change in fortune, Newport focused on repositioning itself as a summer resort. Over time, wealthy families such as the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Morgans began spending their summer vacations there and entertaining their friends in the magnificent mansions they built. As the town’s reputation as a summer destination grew, more families flocked to enjoy the city by the sea.

Though Newport’s culture and economy flourished in the wake of the tourism industry, its history has always been tied to the sea. Recognizing its geographic value, the U.S. Navy designated it as a primary naval site shortly after the end of the Civil War. The Naval Training Station, Torpedo Station, and Naval War College were all established there, creating a critical naval presence that remains influential to this day.

Newport’s history is undoubtedly rich and varied. This is reflected both in its culture and its residents today. But before we explore things to do and see in the city today, let’s take a look at some historic images of Newport.

Historic Images of Newport, Rhode Island

Newport Harbor looking southeast from the New England Steamship Company. [Pg. 6]
Reprinted from Images of America: Newport by Rob Lewis (Arcadia Publishing, 1996).


The Pinniger and Manchester Coal Co. This company operated from Perry Wharf from 1870 to the 1950's. The Perry Mill, the building with the tower, was constructed in 1835 to manufacture cotton and wool fabrics. [Pg. 27]
Reprinted from Images of America: Newport by Rob Lewis (Arcadia Publishing, 1996).

Touro Park is shown here c. 1895. [Pg. 12]
Reprinted from Images of America: Newport Revisited by Rob Lewis & Ryan A. Young (Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

Plan of the Town of Newport in 1777. Goat Island, prominently shown in the foreground, became the site of the first official U.S. Naval Research Station, established nearly a century later in 1869. Fort George (shown on the island) was set up in pre-Revolutionary times to protect the harbor entrance to Newport. It underwent severla name changes reflecting the reigning British monarchs and political shifts in colonial times and the early republic. [Pg. 12]
Reprinted from Images of America: The Navy in Newport by Lionel D. Wyld. (Arcadia Publishing, 2000)

Ready to plan your Newport vacation? Here’s some helpful tips…

Top 5 Places to Eat

-   Salvation Café - Vibrant spot with funky, creative decor known for a clever mash-up of global fare & cocktails.

-   The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar - Narragansett Bay views sweeten the deal at this upscale seafood destination with outdoor dining.

-   Flo's Clam Shack - A no-frills stop for New England seafood since the '30s, with counter service & an upstairs raw bar.

-   Black Pearl - Atmospheric wharf bar & formal restaurant with nautical decor, famed chowder & a busy summer patio.

-   Café Zelda - Neighborhood bar & bistro with a homey feel providing French & American dishes in quaint quarters. Try their brunch!

Top 5 Things to Do

-   Cliff Walk – Take a 3.5 mile long stroll along the eastern shore of the city and enjoy scenic ocean views and Gilded Age mansions

-   Newport Art Museum – The permanent collection consists of 2,300 works of American art from the late 19th century to today, focusing on historic and contemporary works of both established and emerging Newport and New England artists

-   Museum of Newport History – located in downtown Newport in the Old Brick Market Building, this National Historic Landmark features Newport’s history from pre-colonial times to today

-   Newport Mansions – explore the history of famous Newport mansions including the Breakers, the Marble House, the Elms, and Rosecliff on a self-guided audio tour. See and learn about the personal stories of the people and staff that once lived in these amazing homes

-   Castle Hill Lighthouse – located at the end of the historic Ocean Drive on Narragansett Bay, the lighthouse was completed in 1899 to aid passing ships sailing through the East Passage between Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands.

Fun Facts about Newport [courtesy of]

-   The first traffic law was created in 1678 in Newport, when authorities banned galloping horses on local streets.

-   On September 12, 1953, John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were married at St. Mary’s Church.

-   Newport, the colonial capital of Rhode Island, was the first of the thirteen colonies to declare its independence from England on May 4th, 1776.

-   During the Colonial era, Newport was the rum capital of the world with over 22 rum distilleries throughout the city

-   Newport is home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The first U.S. National Tennis Championship was held in Newport on August 31st, 1881 at the Newport casino.

Interested in learning more about the history of Newport? Check out some of these books:

Pirates of Colonial Newport

Scandalous Newport, Rhode Island

Tennis and the Newport Casino

Rogue's and Heroes of Newport's Gilded Age

Building the Mosquito Fleet: The US Navy's First Torpedo Boats

True Tales of Life & Death at Fort Adams

Click to browse all of our Newport, RI titles.