Just 75 miles out of Boston, nicknamed the “city by the sea”, is the charming coastal town of Newport, Rhode Island. Its picturesque scenery, beautiful architecture, and lively downtown make for a great getaway.
The city was founded in 1639 by a group of settlers who had recently been expelled from Massachusetts for their heretical beliefs and another group who had had a falling out with Anne Hutchinson and her followers, who settled the other side of the island. Though the political tensions between these groups made the early years of Newport somewhat tumultuous, it grew to be one of the most important trade ports in Colonial America, rivaling Boston and New York.
In 1663 Rhode Island received its Royal Charter, providing official recognition of Rhode Island as a colony. It was in Newport that the first governor, Benedict Arnold, was elected.
During the American Revolution, Newport was taken over by the British to be used as a naval base to attack New York. They occupied the city from 1776 – 79.
Beginning in 1778, the Americans began the “Battle of Rhode Island” in conjunction with allies from France. American forces based in Tiverton planned a siege on Newport. However, the French refused to take part because they wanted a frontal assault. This compromised the plan and the British were able to remove the Americans from Rhode Island. In 1779 the British abandoned Newport in favor of New York.
Beginning in 1780, Newport served as the base for French Lieutenant General Rochambeau. Though Rochambeau left the following year for Providence, Newport would serve as a base for French forces for the rest of the war. Today a monument to Rochambeau stands in Kings Park, honoring his assistance in the war.
During the Industrial Revolution, at the dawn of the Gilded Age, wealth entrepreneurs and robber barons were drawn to Newport’s seaside tranquility. It became a haven for socialites and the wealthiest families, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors. They built summer “cottages” (actually elaborate, gilded mansions) in which to spend the summer.
Edith Wharton described the social scene in her novel The Age of Innocence, likely written in her own Newport “cottage”, Land’s End.
It was during this period that Newport gained its association with yachting and sailing. In 1851, in a race around the Isle of White, a schooner called America defeated a British boat. The trophy has since been known as America’s Cup. The New York Yacht Club (who have an outpost in Newport) kept it in their possession from that time until 1983, when it was won by Australia II. It was regained, but lost again in 1995, to a New Zealand crew. Despite the losses, Newport has strong ties with sailing, yachting, and long distance racing.
In later years Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy both had “Summer White Houses” in Newport. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, it was home to a Naval base. Today it is home to the Naval War College.
Though Newport sustains the image of being the home of the ultra elite, it’s a great place for anyone to come relax. Spend the afternoon on the water on unwinding on the beach. Go wine tasting, or tour the mansions that were once the playgrounds of America’s most elite families. Spend the day exploring Newport’s rich history and its part in American history.
Newport is an easy drive from Boston or New York City. It’s also easily accessed by Providence Airport.