Newport Tower (Rhode Island)

Newport Tower (Rhode Island)
Newport Tower
DSCN3887 newporttower e.jpg
The Newport Tower.
Mill name Newport Tower
Mill location Newport, Rhode Island
Coordinates 41°29′09″N 71°18′36″W / 41.4858°N 71.3099°W / 41.4858; -71.3099Coordinates: 41°29′09″N 71°18′36″W / 41.4858°N 71.3099°W / 41.4858; -71.3099
Year built Mid 17th century
Purpose Corn mill
Type Tower mill

The Newport Tower (also known as: Round Tower, Touro Tower, Newport Stone Tower and Old Stone Mill) is a round stone tower located in Touro Park in Newport, Rhode Island (USA).

It is commonly considered to have been a windmill built in the mid 17th century. However, the tower has received attention due to speculation that it is actually several centuries older and represents evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact.



The Newport Tower is located in Touro Park, at the top of Mill Street, surrounded by a historical residential neighborhood on the hill above the waterfront tourist district. Eighteenth-century paintings show that the hill itself once furnished a view of the harbor and would have been visible to passing mariners in Narragansett Bay,[1] but recent tree growth now obscures the view.

The Newport Tower is not exactly circular. From southeast to northwest the diameter reportedly measures 22 feet 2 inches, but when measured from east to west, the diameter lengthens to 23 feet 3 inches,[2] although curiously, 19th century measurements of the interior gave an east-west dimension of 18 feet 4 inches, which was slightly shorter than the north-south measurement of 18 feet 9 inches,[3][4] suggesting that the discrepancies may be due to the unevenness of the rubble masonry. The tower has a height of 28 feet and an exterior width of 24 feet. At one time the sides were coated with a smooth coating of white plaster, the remains of which can still be seen clinging to the outer walls. It is supported by eight cylindrical columns that form stone arches, two of which are slightly broader than the other six. Above the arches and inside the tower is evidence of a floor that once supported an interior chamber. The walls are approximately 3 feet thick, and the diameter of the inner chamber is approximately 18 feet. The chamber is penetrated by four windows on what used to be the main floor, and three very small ones at the upper level. Almost (but not quite directly) opposite the west window is a fireplace backed with grey stone and flanked by nooks.[4][5]

A representation of the tower is featured prominently on the Seal and unit patch of the former US Navy vessel, USS Newport.

Nothing in early Norse architecture is similar, in size or appearance, to the Newport Tower. However, this 17th Century windmill near Chesterton, England, shares many characteristics with the Newport Tower

In a document of 1741 the tower is described as "the old stone mill." In 1760 the Tower was used as a haymow, while in 1767 it was described as having been used as a powder store "some time past". De Barres' plan of Newport, published in 1776, marks it as "Stone Wind Mill."[6] During the American Revolution, the tower was used by the Americans as a lookout, and by the British to store munitions. A painting of the tower circa 1777 is here: [2]


The tower is located at the upper end of the plot behind the now-demolished mansion built by Benedict Arnold, the first colonial governor of Rhode Island, who moved from Pawtuxet to Newport in 1651[7] (not to be confused with his great-grandson, General Benedict Arnold of the American Revolutionary War.) In 1677 Arnold mentions "my stone built Wind Mill" in his will: the site for his then-new burying-ground, which survives to this day, is between this mill and his mansion.[8] The phrase has therefore generally been accepted as referring to the Newport Tower, and is evidence the tower was once used as a windmill.

An illustration from the British "Penny Magazine", published in 1836 (shown at right), revealed to the Americans that the tower is of a similar type to Chesterton Windmill, a 17th century mill near Chesterton, Warwickshire, England. The notion that Arnold was born in Leamington, Warwickshire, only a few miles from Chesterton, is mistaken: the family lived near Limington in Somerset, about 100 miles away.[9] However, Chesterton windmill stands on a ridge within half a mile of one of the main southwest–northeast roads of early modern Britain, which also runs past Limington, and it is entirely plausible that Arnold, or another colonist in a position to influence the design of his "stone built windmill", would have seen it. One such candidate is George Lawton, who was born in 1607 about 30 km from Chesterton and is thought to have built several mills in the area. 'Georg Lawtons Mill' is mentioned in a 1668 document as being on the current Newport Mill Street.[10]

Various authors have suggested that comparable Mediaeval buildings can be found in Europe; in particular the Orphir Round Church on Orkney built in Scotland around 1115 and the round churches on the Danish island of Bornholm such as Østerlars Church dating from around 1160.[11]

Scientific investigations

1848 mortar comparison

In 1848, the Rev. Dr. Jackson of Newport collected samples of mortar from the mill and some of the oldest known structures in the town, including the very early Bull house (c1640), the Easton house (1642-3), other houses, and the tombs of Governor Arnold and his wife. Under detailed examination, all proved to be of very similar composition, "composed of shell lime, sand, and gravel".[12]

1948 excavation

The city of Newport gave permission for a scientific investigation of the site by the Society for American Archaeology in 1948. The investigation was directed by Hugh Henken of Harvard University, with the field work headed by William S. Godfrey. As part of the investigation, a one-meter wide trench was dug from the tower's exterior through the interior. The results, published in Godfrey's 1951 Ph.D. dissertation, concluded that all the artifacts discovered were from the 17th century. Godfrey's dissertation identifies Benedict Arnold as the builder of the tower, stating that Arnold "purchased some of his Newport property, specifically the section on which he later built his house and the stone mill, the year before he moved... At some period before 1677 Arnold built the Old Stone Mill."[13]

Godfrey initially dismissed the Chesterton Mill theory,[14] claiming that "On the other hand, there is very little probability that Benedict built his Tower as a mill... the tower mill form, as contrasted to the smock, post and composite forms, was not common in England until the beginning of the 18th century."[15] Godfrey posited the hypothesis that "the tower was built as a comfortable retreat and lookout for a very rich and very autocratic old man."[16] However, he later retreated from this position, noting in 1954 that "Rex Wailes, noted English expert on windmills,... has supported the contention that both structures were built as mills."[17] It has since been shown that tower mills were known in England from the late thirteenth century and that they became increasingly common from the late sixteenth century onwards.[18][19] Subsequent research has determined that Chesterton was, in fact, built as a windmill in 1632-3, as the original building accounts, including payments for sailcloths, having been traced since Wailes' death in 1986.[20] There are also several surviving seventeenth century stone tower mills in North America,[21] which are similar in appearance to European examples of the same period (e.g. Moulin de Grondines, Quebec (1674)[22] and Moulin de Vincelotte, Quebec (1690)).

1992 carbon-14 dating

In 1992, radiocarbon dating tests of the tower's mortar were undertaken by a team of researchers from Denmark and Finland. The results suggest a probable date of construction between 1635 and 1698.[23]

2006–2008 excavations

In October and November 2006 and again in October and November 2007, the Chronognostic Research Foundation[24] provided the funds necessary to conduct an archaeological investigation of the anomalies discovered in Touro Park during geophysical studies of the past three years. These anomalies were tested in the excavation plan created by the cultural resource management firm Gray and Pape. Multiple levels of fill and the existence of earlier gravel paths from various decades in the 19th and 20th centuries were uncovered. While no artifacts or deposits relating to the building of the tower were found during these excavations, the project uncovered numerous interesting aspects of the park during its existence, especially the change in landscape and what sorts of events were transpiring there. The primary goal of this research project was to answer the question: Who built the Newport Tower? Press reports following the first digging season clearly show that the earliest date of any one of the many artifacts excavated was 17th century.[25]

At the end of the second digging season, in November 2007, Janet Barstad, president of the Chronognostic Foundation, surprised Newport city councilors by refocusing attention on the astronomical alignments (discussed below) as evidence for a medieval date of construction, on the basis that the archaeological excavations had not found anything conclusively related to the tower.[26]

Informed by the city authorities in spring 2008 that the asphalt path around the tower was to be removed and replaced with concrete, Chronognostic arranged for some of their experienced local volunteers to undertake several small excavations after the old path material had been removed, lasting from May 30 to June 4. They concentrated on areas directly in line with the Tower pillars, and in two of the three major pits they dug, found columns of discoloration, about 35 cm in diameter, which appeared to indicate the former presence of substantial wooden posts about 4 metres out from the tower walls, possibly supports for a wooden roof. No such discoloration was found in the third aligned test pit, or in a smaller pit dug without reference to the Tower columns. Small finds included charcoal, but carbon dating of this was inconclusive.[27]

Alternative hypotheses

Despite there being no archaeological artifacts nor documents which would date the Tower to the pre-Colonial period, several writers have advanced ideas about the tower's origin apart from the now mainstream windmill theory.

The Newport Tower, circa 1894


In 1837 the Danish archaeologist Carl Christian Rafn in his book Antiquitates Americanæ, partly based on his research of the inscriptions on the Dighton Rock near the mouth of the Taunton River, proposed a Viking origin for the tower. This hypothesis is predicated on the uncertainty of the southward extent of the early Norse explorations of North America, particularly in regard to the actual location of Vinland. Rafn's popularization of the theory led to a flurry of interest and "proofs" of Norse settlement in the area.[28] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow incorporated the Norse-origin view of the tower into his poem "The Skeleton in Armor".[29] Phillip Ainsworth Means, an archaeologist whose speciality was Latin America, attempted to compile all known evidence surrounding the tower to date in his 1942 book The Newport Tower. As a supporter of the Norse hypothesis, Means dismissed the idea that Arnold built the tower "from the ground up."

Since then much of Means' evidence has been shown to be mistaken. Means' assertion that a windmill would not have fireplaces because of the fire risk is incorrect.[30] Several have fireplaces aligned with windows and it is not unusual to find a double flue exiting out of the wall, generally with the exits aligned parallel to the prevailing wind to improve the updraft on a relatively short flue (e.g. Upholland Windmill, Lancashire, where the fireplace is at second floor (Br Eng = First floor) level, and the doors and windows are aligned to the cardinal points of the compass; or Much Wenlock windmill, Shropshire, which has double flues of uncertain purpose rising from the middle floor level.[31] A conventional chimney could not be used as it would foul the turning cap and sails of the windmill.

Newport Tower, 2008

Observatory hypothesis

Four of the eight supporting pillars of the tower face the main points of the compass. In the 1990s, William Penhallow, an astronomer at the University of Rhode Island, studied the windows in the tower and said that he found a number of astronomical alignments. At the summer solstice the setting sun should shine through the "west" window (actually just south of true west) onto a niche in the inner wall, next to the "south" window. (This no longer happens due to urban development and park trees.) Similarly, the angle from the "east" window through the "west" window is about 18 degrees south of west, which is the southern extreme of moonsets during what is known as the "lunar minor standstill". The smaller windows also form alignments, on significant stars. These alignments could be accidental, but if they were deliberate it would explain why the pattern of windows seems, according to Penhallow, "so odd".[32]


The author Gavin Menzies argues in 1421: The Year China Discovered America that the tower was built by a colony of Chinese sailors and concubines from the junks of Zheng He's voyages either as a lighthouse, or, based on Penhallow's findings,[33] as an observatory to determine the longitude of the colony. Menzies claimed that the tower closely matches designs used in Chinese observatories and lighthouses elsewhere. However, these claims have been debunked.[34]


During the early 20th century, Edmund B. Delabarre associated the Dighton Rock with the lost Portuguese navigators Miguel Corte-Real and his brother Gaspar. This Portuguese hypothesis has been supported more recently by Manuel Luciano DaSilva, who suggests that one of the Corte-Real brothers built the Newport Tower as a watchtower. The idea of Portuguese construction of the tower was also supported by former U.S. Ambassador Herbert Pell, who in 1948 argued that the tower resembles elements of the Convent of Tomar in Portugal.[35] [36]

Medieval Templars

The prolific British writer Andrew Sinclair has put forth the hypothesis that the Newport Tower was built by medieval Scottish Templars led by the Scottish earl Henry Sinclair, as part of an alleged voyage to New England about a hundred years before Columbus.[37] Sinclair's alleged voyage to America also appeared in the international best-seller Holy Blood Holy Grail, but this claim has been vigorously disputed.[38]

See also

Oldest buildings in the United States


  1. ^ Painting attributed to Gilbert Stuart (c1770s): Redwood Library and Athenaeum, via
  2. ^ Holand, Hjalmar R. "America 1355-1364" Duell, Sloan and Pearce (1946)
  3. ^ Rafn, C.C. "Americas Opdalgese i det Tiende Aarhundrede" Copenhagen, Kvist (1841), via Google Books- accessed 2007-12-11
  4. ^ a b Mason, George C. "Old Stone Mill at Newport, R.I." plans and sections, sadly not 100% accurate (10 Oct 1878), via Library of Congress- accessed 2007-12-11
  5. ^ "Unrolled" interior elevation of the Tower about 1% missing at right end, accessed 2007-12-11
  6. ^ Buckland, J. S. P. The Origins of the Tower Mill, with a note on Chesterton Proc. 11 Mills Research Conference, Mills Research Group [1](Essex, UK) 1994
  7. ^ Hubbard, Edwin (1879). The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. XXXIII Oct 1879. New England Historic Genealogical Society. pp. 428. ISBN 0-7884-0293-5. 
  8. ^ "Will of Governor Benedict Arnold of Newport, Rhode Island". Retrieved 2010-05-27. 
  9. ^ Fred A. Arnold An account of the English homes of three early "proprietors" of Providence Providence RI, E.A. Johnson & Co. (1921) via the Internet Archive
  10. ^ Hertz, Johannes 1995 "Rundkirke eller Vindmølle" Nyt Lys Over Newport-tårnet, Rhode Island, USA" Arkæologiske Udgravinger I Danmark 1994, Copenhagen. Reprinted in English in Newport History, Journal of the Newport Historical Society Vol.68, Part 2, 1997 p.90
  11. ^ Davis, Graeme. "Vikings In America", Edinburgh, Birlinn (2011) pp169
  12. ^ Peterson, Edward "History of Rhode Island and Newport" New York, John S. Taylor (1853), via Google Books- accessed 2007-12-11
  13. ^ Godfrey, Digging a Tower and Laying a Ghost,p.5
  14. ^ Godfrey, Digging a Tower and Laying a Ghost,p.17,18
  15. ^ Godfrey, Digging a Tower and Laying a Ghost,p.177
  16. ^ William S. Godfrey, Jr., "The Archeology of the Old Stone Mill in Newport, Rhode Island," American Antiquity (Feb. 1951), p. 129.
  17. ^ William Godfrey, "Answer to 'Plaster under the Tower,'" American Antiquity, vol. 19, no. 3 (Jan. 1954), p. 278.
  18. ^ Watts, M. Archaeology of Mills and Milling, Tempus 2002
  19. ^ Langdon,J. Watts, M. Tower Windmills in Medieval England: A Case of Arrested Development? Technology and Culture - Volume 46, Number 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2005, pp. 697-719
  20. ^ Warwickshire County Council
  21. ^ Priamo, C Mills of Canada, McGraw-Hill Ryerson 1976
  22. ^ "Moulin à vent de Grondines". Government of Quebec. Retrieved 4 June 2010. 
  23. ^ The Journal of the Newport Historical Society, Vol 68, Part 2, 1997: The History and Mystery of the Old Stone Mill.
  24. ^ Chronognostic Research Foundation
  25. ^ Flynn, Sean "Touro Park dig comes up empty" Newport Daily News (24 Nov 2006) subscription, accessed 2006-11-30
  26. ^ report of Barstad's speech Newport Daily News (20 Nov 2007) subscription, accessed 21 November 2007
  27. ^ Summary of 2008 excavations Chronognostic website (Accessed 2009-07-28)
  28. ^ N.E.A.R.A. essay by S. Carlson
  29. ^ Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982: 71. ISBN 0195031865
  30. ^ Derek Ogden, "Fireplaces Are Common in Tower Windmills," 'Newport Daily News', 23–24 March 1996.
  31. ^ Much Wenlock Windmill Trust
  32. ^ Baltic Astronomy, 1997:
  33. ^ Penhallow, William S. Astronomical Alignments in Newport Tower, in "Across before Columbus?", Edgecomb, Maine, New England Antiquities Research Association, 1998.
  34. ^ e.g. K. Seaver Walrus Pitch and Other Novelties: Gavin Menzies and the Far North at the 1421 Exposed website
  35. ^ Jones, Capers (2006). The History and Future of Narragansett Bay. Boca Raton, Florida: Universal Publishers. pp. 50–51. 
  36. ^ Pell, Herbert C. (Oct. 1948). "The Old Stone Mill, Newport.". Rhode Island History 7 (4): 105–119. 
  37. ^ Andrew Sinclair, The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and Templars and a True Discovery of America (New York: Crown Publishers, 1992), pp. 140-150.
  38. ^ Brian Smith Earl Henry Sinclair's fictitious trip to America New Orkney Antiquarian Journal, vol. 2 (2002) online at

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