When you think of Rhode Island, you immediately probably think of Newport and the America’s Cup – one of the most prestigious yacht races in the world. Newport is famous for the wealth displayed in the luxury yachts that moor here, as well as the Mansion Homes that are dotted along the coastline.
The State of Rhode Island is small – the smallest state in the United States, just 37 miles across East to West, and 48 miles from North to South, but don’t let that fool you, Rhode Island has a coastline of around 400 miles. This is due to the number of bays, inlets and islands that create this most dramatic of coastlines, with the weather adding its own level of drama as well.
The biggest City is the State Capitol, Providence with a population of around 180,000 people, with the name ‘Providence’ – probably giving you a clue that this state was formed on the basis of Religion. Originally the area was populated by the Wampanoag, Niantic and Narragansett Native American tribes, and just as the Puritans in Massachusetts had left England to establish a utopian society, so it was that a group, led by an estranged Puritan from Massachusetts, Roger Williams (1603-1683) led to the formation of Rhode Island in 1836, just six years after the Massachusetts Colony had been established.
Roger Williams held the view that there should be religious freedom and tolerance with the “wall of Separation” between church and state – inviting Baptists, Quakers, Jewish and other religious groups to the new settlement. He is also credited as having good relations and respect for Native Americans and editing the first dictionary of Native American language. His greatest achievement however was after his death, when his belief in “A wall of Separation” was incorporated into the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Rhode Island with its long bays became a significant port in the early days, and it was the first colony in America to declare its independence from the British in 1776, with a number of battles fought here in the Revolutionary wars that followed. While it was heavily involved in the Slave trade, it was one of the first states to instigate laws to prohibit slavery in 1774, and besides its maritime and agricultural industries, it was textile manufacture that became its biggest industry during the late 1700’s and 1800’s. The cotton however was however sourced from the Southern States that continued to use Slaves up until the end of the Civil War (1860-1865).
Rhode Islanders also fought on the Union side in the Civil War, with 25,000 men fighting in the War. Rhode Island’s textile mills worked hard to supply uniforms for the soldiers, and in the post war period the fast growing manufacturing industries attracted new immigrants to head to Rhode Island for jobs.
Rhode Island manufacturing grew from cotton and woollen textiles, to machinery parts, hardware, shoes and silverware as an Industrial Revolution took place in the United States, matching a fast growing population base to sell goods to as well. From an age of horses and wagons, came steam engines, roads, automobiles, oil, banking and fortunes, a so called ‘Gilded Age’ where a small number of Tycoons made fortunes, and they spent some of those fortunes on building their ‘summer retreats’ in Newport.
Rhode Island is just 180 miles from New York City and 50 miles from Boston, and in 1844 the New York Yacht Club formed that year and the founders first race was made from Battery Point in New York Harbor to Newport, the start of a long lasting association between the city of New York and Newport.
It was the age of sail, with the giant American Clipper ships carrying tea and other goods across the oceans and heralding a new era in yachting for pleasure. In 1851 in England, the British Queen, Her Majesty, Queen Victoria witnessed a Yachting race, where an American Schooner, the aptly named “America” from the New York Yacht Club, led the field and won the race. This race challenged the supremacy of the Britain Empire “ruling the waves”, and when the crew of “America” returned to New York they were greeted as heroes. This was the start of what became known as “The America’s Cup” – the most prestigious yacht race in the world, a race between Nations with the races held off Newport from 1930 onwards.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the race is that there is only a winner, and no second place – a tradition said to go back to the time when Queen Victoria asked the question, “Who came second”, only to be told “There is no second place”!
Winning the America’s Cup has had many challenges over the years, and fortunes were spent trying to wrest the cup away from the Americans, funded by wealthy Billionaires like Sir Thomas Lipton, Louis Vuitton and Baron Von Bic, but it took a wealthy businessman from Australia, Alan Bond to achieve what was thought to be impossible, winning the America’s Cup in 1983. (See www.americascup.com ). This was the first time in the history of the Cup that someone other than an American had been able to win.
Five years later in 1988, the New York Yacht Club purchased a Newport Mansion, ‘Harbour Court’, as a permanent home for the Club in Newport. The Mansion, built in 1906 sits on 8 acres of grounds at Brenton Cove, overlooking the coastline at 5 Halidon Avenue, Newport. Tel: 401 846 1000 while the Newport Yacht Club (www.newportyachtclub.org) is located at 110 Long Wharf, Newport.
Newport and wealth have long been associated, and there are a number of large Mansions built in Newport, many of them on Bellevue Avenue. There are walking tours to see some of these magnificent buildings and learn about their owners, builders, servants and gardens, and some of these mansions are open to view to see some of the opulent rooms, decoration, furnishings and antiques. Mansions include ‘Rough Point’ (built 1887)at 680 Bellevue Avenue, ‘Belcourt Castle’(built 1894) at 651, ‘Marble House’ (built 1892)at 596, ‘Rosecliff’ (built 1902) at 548, ‘Vernon Court’(built 1894)at 492, ‘Chateau-sur-Mer’ (built 1852)at 474, ‘The Elms’ (built 1901)at 367, ‘Kingscote’ (built 1841)at 253, ‘Isaac Bell House’ (built 1883) at 70 Perry Street, ‘Chepstow’ (built 1861)at 120 Narragansett Avenue, ‘The Breakers’ (built 1895) at 44 Ochre Point Avenue, ‘Carey Mansion’ (Seaview Terrace) (built 1925)is at 207 Ruggles Avenue, ‘The Breakers Stable and Carriage House’ at 53 Coggeshall Avenue, ‘Hunter House’ (built c.1748) at 54 Washington Street. There are a number of others too, some even for sale for $20 million or more, and there is also the Mansions Store at Bannister’s Wharf on America’s Cup Avenue, and the ‘White Horse Tavern’ that opened in 1673 is located at the corner of Farewell and Marlborough Streets.
One of the interesting Mansion homes is ‘Brayton House’ at 380 Cory’s Lane in Portsmouth, where there are 80 Topiary animals from ships and Elephants to Bear and Bear Cubs all created using Boxwood, Yew or Privet and pruned to achieve the shapes.
The best way to see the Mansions is to contact the Preservation Society of Newport County at 424 Bellevue Avenue. Tel: 401- 847 2251. Also see www.newportrestoration.org Tel: 401 847 8344.
The city center, what is called the Historic District also has more modest houses, as well as commercial buildings in and around van Zandt Avenue, Thomas and Marsh Streets. Also look for Trinity Episcopal Church in Queen Anne Square, which opened in 1725.
Some of the best things to do in Newport are –
In Newport there are also excellent boutiques, spas, restaurants, hotels and B&B’s to stay in and also camping locations close by too. When you see the mansions both outside and inside, and consider not just the wealth that was spent here, but also the artistry of the builders, decorators, collectors and others who worked to create them, you have to admire and respect them all. Equally, you also have to admire the Volunteer work that has enabled many of the grand mansions to be opened, restored and maintained.