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Newport: Summer Charms of the Gilded Age

Located approximately 30 miles south of Providence, the charming city of Newport, RI was founded in 1639 by William Coddington, John Clarke and others after a political fallout with Anne Hutchinson. Before long, it became a most important port in Colonial Rhode Island. The state of Rhode Island was founded on religious tolerance and Newport played its role in welcoming people from various religious backgrounds. In the mid 1600s, a group of Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal settled there and soon founded what became the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. A large number of Quakers also made Newport their home.

Besides those fleeing religious persecution, Newport also attracted other groups of people, including pirates. It became a hub for several pirate groups, including one led by Thomas Tew. During the 1720s, as the Colonists were feeling increased pressure from the English government to do something about their pirate problem, many pirates were arrested and hung in Newport.

Newport was also the center for slave trade in New England during the Colonial period. Later, during the American Revolution, Newport also proved to be a center for much activity. The English took over the city in 1776 when they saw that it could be used to as a naval base to attack nearby New York. The British finally abandoned Newport in 1779, and shortly thereafter, the French used it as a base for their forces. By 1783, when the war was over, Newport's population was decreased by over half.

During the mid 19th century, Newport began to experience a reawakening of settlement and activity. Wealthy Southerners, who were followed by wealthy Northerners, built their massive "cottages" and Newport became a sort of summer haven for the wealthy classes. The Vanderbilts and the Astors both had summer mansions in Newport.

In fact, the Newport Mansions are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state of Rhode Island today. The Vanderbilts' impressive 75-room, 138,000 sq. ft mansion called The Breakers is Rhode Island's most visited attracted today. Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind's The Elms is a modeled after a mid-18th Century French Chateau and is absolutely breathtaking. Marble House, another Vanderbilt home, became an architectural landmark and elevated Newport from a quiet summer colony to a famous resort for the wealthiest classes. Rosecliff was the home of Theresa Fair Oelrichs. The mansion was designed to recall Grand Trianon, the royal garden retreat at Versailles. Harry Houdini was among the many guests to be entertained there. Chateau-sur-Mer was an Italianate-style villa built for William Shepard Wetmore, a wealthy merchant. It is epitome of Victorian architecture and interior decoration. Other Newport mansions include Chepstow, Kingscote, the Isaac Bell House and Hunter House. The wonderful thing about the mansions are that they are all closely situated together along Bellevue Avenue. Take a leisurely drive down the street or a walking tour along Cliff Walk where the ocean meets backyards of these fabulous homes. Many are open year round for tours. Step inside these impressive homes and you will feel like you stepped back in time to the Gilded Age, among the wealthiest society who considered Newport their summer playground.

For another interesting excursion, consider visiting Jamestown Island, a quiet leisurely place to walk, bicycle or drive. Watson Farm is a 265-acre working traditional farm that welcomes visitors. It hosts special farm events and has a two-mile walking trail.

For those looking for a more aquatic experience, visit Rose Island Lighthouse, in Narrangansett Bay. They offer tours tour during the day where you can learn about life as a ligthouse keeper. If you want the true historical experience, you can even spend a night in the keeper’s house, where lighthouse keepers’ families lived, ate and slept for more than 100 years.

Newport has so much to offer. It is also home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport Vineyards, and much more. From a host of quaint downtown shops and restaurants overlooking the harbor to beautiful walking trails and gorgeous mansions, it is an ideal vacation spot. No wonder our American aristocrats of the Gilded Age claimed it as their summer getaway and turned it into a legendary resort.

Cliff Walk

The Breakers (anterior)

The Breakers (posterior)

The Elms