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Newport's Mystery Tower

Perched atop a hill in Newport, Rhode Island, an old stone tower stands as one of this country's longest enduring architectural enigmas. Known by many names, including the Viking Tower, Old Stone Mill, and Mystery Tower, today this landmark is more commonly known as the Newport Tower.

For over a century debate has raged over the identity of the builders of this structure. Speculation has ranged from the Norse to the Chinese to the Norwegians and Swedes. Most archeologists maintain that the tower was built in Colonial times and that there is no mystery surrounding its construction. But the full story of how this great monument came into being may not yet have been told.

Constructed of small slabs of unfinished stone held together with a mortar of shells, sand and water, the tower is built upon eight round columns separated by an equal number of arches supporting the remains of two upper stories. Now just over 24 feet in height, it once stood at least several feet taller.

Interestingly, the Newport Tower was not built around a perfectly circular plan. From southeast to northwest the diameter measures 22 feet, 2 inches, but when measured from east to west, the diameter lengthens to 23 feet, 3 inches.1 This thirteen-inch differential is only one of many strange design aspects and may be an important clue towards determining the purpose of the structure.

Now protected by a high fence, the Newport Tower today stands as the centerpiece of Touro Park. Its outward appearance didn't always look so rough though. 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.

Archeologists and historians for the most part agree that Governor Benedict Arnold—grandfather of the Revolutionary War traitor—had the Newport Tower constructed in the mid 17th century. As evidence, they point to a passage in governor Arnold's will in which he refers to the tower as "my stone-built windmill."1

Of course Governor Arnold never actually states that he built the structure. He may simply have been referring to the pre-existing stone tower that now resided on his land. In any case, all the will really proves is that the tower was in existence prior to the Governor's death in 1677.

The most convincing evidence for the tower being of Colonial origin comes from archeological digs performed by W. S. Godfrey, Jr. in 1948 and 1949. Godfrey's excavations uncovered many artifacts, all dated to Colonial times. He even excavated beneath the stone columns where he uncovered a bootprint consistent with boots worn in the 17th century. These results logically led him to conclude that the tower was constructed around 1650.2

Further evidence for a Colonial origin was supplied in 1993 when J. Siemonsen had samples of the tower's mortar carbon dated. His results led him to conclude that the building was erected between 1500 and 1630, again placing construction in Colonial times.2 The scientific evidence seems insurmountable, but many still believe that there's more to the Newport Tower's origin than is readily apparent.

Skeptics point out that the method used to extract carbon dioxide from the porous mortar used in Siemonsen's carbon dating has a high potential for error. His results produced possible construction dates from as early as 1450 to as late as the 20th century. His pronouncement of a Colonial origin was based on an averaging of the dates obtained. These results seem questionable to say the least.

Furthermore, Godfrey's excavations uncovered fragments of the plaster that once covered the walls of the tower. These fragments, like many of the artifacts recovered, were found beneath the foundations of the columns.

It seems straightforward to presume that plaster was not applied until the structure was completed. Therefore it has been hypothesized that plaster was deposited beneath the foundation during a later operation designed to stabilize the tower at a much later date. Since Colonial artifacts were found with the plaster, it has been suggested that the tower was merely reinforced during Colonial times and that its initial date of construction was actually much earlier.

There is a vast amount of evidence for a pre-Columbian date of construction for the tower. Admittedly, much of it is circumstantial, but when taken as a whole a reasonably compelling case can be made for a pre-Colonial date of origin.

If the tower was built for Colonial use, what was its purpose? Governor Arnold's will seems to indicate that it was used as a windmill, the function of which would have been to grind grain into flour. But the tower's construction seems to be completely at odds with this supposed purpose.

In examining the eight pillars that support the upper walls of the tower, it can readily be seen that the columns do not sit flush against the upper walls. In fact they overhang the upper levels by several inches. Proponents of the theory that the Norse constructed the tower point out that this design was a common feature of medieval European baptisteries where an outer structure would be built around the central stone core.1

The small ledges at the tops of the columns served to support wooden beams upon which the outer structure could be anchored. However, if the tower were really built as a windmill, this outer structure would have interfered with the spinning sails used by all windmills to harness the power of the wind. It seems difficult to fathom how these two contradictory design elements could have coexisted.

The basic eight-pillar design of the Newport Tower is also highly questionable for a windmill. As Jim Brandon points out in Weird America, "Windmills are subject to strong torquing forces and a heavy stone mass atop the rather spindly circle of pillars would be a very poor engineering solution, besides being more difficult to build than, say, a solid wall construction."3

Most damning of all to the windmill theory is the presence of a fireplace built into the second story of the tower. The dust produced when grinding grain is highly flammable. Building a fireplace into a windmill seems utterly inconceivable.

Then there is the matter of the effort required to build such a structure. It is estimated that the tower contains more than six thousand cubic feet of stone weighing almost one million pounds, all of which had to be collected and carried up the hill for construction.1

It seems unlikely that during the 17th century such a large-scale building project would have been initiated in Newport. In the years when the tower is supposed to have been constructed, the townspeople lived in constant fear of attack by the natives. Indeed their battles with the native Indians and the constant threat of attack did not end until 1676 when the colonists finally dealt the Indians a crushing defeat.1

If the labor were being put towards the construction of a defensive fort, it might make sense. But the construction of a fanciful windmill doesn't seem to correlate well with the circumstances of the times the colonists lived in.

So if Governor Arnold's contemporaries didn't build the tower, who did? Popular local opinion has long held that the tower was built by the Norse. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow helped to popularize this theory with the publication of his poem "The Skeleton in Armor" in which he makes several references to the Newport Tower.2

Proponents of the Norse theory often point to the unit of measurement they believe was used during construction. Unlike other Colonial structures that were built using the English foot, the Newport Tower appears to have been based using an ancient Scottish unit of measurement known as an ell which is equivalent to three Norse feet.4

In "America: 1355-1364," H. R. Holand lays out a convincing case that the Newport Tower was constructed in the mid 14th century by an expedition consisting of Norwegians and Swedes. As evidence, he points out the structural similarities of the tower to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Cambridge, England and the Church of St. Olaf in Tunsberg, Norway.

A channel cutting into the wall of the second story appears to have been designed to hold a slab of stone that could be used as an altar. Holand points out that small alcoves built into the wall both above and below the channel likely held relics and items of religious import. The design and orientation of this altar is consistent with practices of Catholic worship. However, there were no Catholics present among the early colonists of Newport during the 17th century.1

In 1946 Professor P. Luvfold and M. Bjorndal discovered a Swedish-Norwegian runic inscription on the west side of the tower, 14 feet above the ground. The inscription was translated as the date 1010.2 After a few minutes of searching, I located the proposed runic letters. The markings are very faint and crude.

The image on the left shows the inscription as it is supposed to appear. The middle photo highlights the markings as I saw them. The photo on the right shows the bare stone without enhancements. The runes could have faded or perhaps my vantage point wasn't ideal, but nevertheless, the inscription looks to be anything but conclusive.

In the June, 1977 issue of FATE, Clyde Keeler describes another inscription that he believes attributes the building of the tower to the Christian monk, Henrikus Gnupson.5 Again the photo on the left shows the letters as Keeler describes them. The middle picture depicts the markings I saw and the right photo shows the unenhanced stone.

There are a number of problems with this "rune" that is supposed to spell out IHC. During my inspection of the rock, I could find no trace of the supposed C. Furthermore, the I and H can only be read by selectively accepting and ignoring the markings on the rock.

Like other forms of rock art, there is no accurate way to date when these markings were carved into the stone. Certainly the first inscription existed by 1946, but there's no way to rule out a recent hoax. This all assumes that the markings are genuine inscriptions; a fact I'm not completely convinced of.

The most recent theory proposed to explain the Newport Tower's origins comes from the book "1421 – The Year China Discovered America." As the title suggests, the author Gavin Menzies theorizes that the tower was built by early Chinese explorers during the 15th century to serve as a lighthouse.

This startling revelation is based on a comparison of the Rhode Island tower to a similar structure used as a lighthouse in the port of Zaiton in Southern China. The towers do look alike; each built atop eight columns and once covered in smooth plaster. Other design elements such as the windows and fireplace are also similar.6

A definitive identity for the builders of the Newport Tower is still unknown. But there are many clues that once unraveled, may lead to a satisfactory explanation.

Menzies suggests that a chemical analysis could determine the composition of the mortar used to build the tower. Chinese mortar is unique and highly dateable having bits of rice ground in amongst its other components.6 The city of Newport has not allowed these tests to be carried out yet, but if they do, a Chinese origin could either be proven or ruled out.

The design of the tower itself still holds a number of unsolved mysteries as well. For instance, why does the diameter of the tower vary by a full 11 inches? This discrepancy is too big to attribute to simple builder error.

One of the most unique design elements in the Newport Tower is the inclusion of two chimneys built into the fireplace. During my research into the tower's origin I have yet to come across a satisfactory explanation for this architectural peculiarity. The identification of a similar chimney building style may well produce one of our best leads in determining who built the tower.

Recently, researchers used ground-penetrating radar to search the area around the tower. Their results indicated a number of unusual features that may be evidence for additional structures once surrounding the tower.7 These buildings may have been part of a church or baptistery for instance.

Of course the radar results, like much of the anomalous data surrounding the Newport Tower, is useless without hard evidence. A more extensive archaeological dig might just do the trick. A new excavation could probe deeper into the earth and perhaps determine if the tower really was merely reinforced during Colonial times.

However, such invasive research is unlikely to be approved by the city of Newport anytime soon. And even if it were, the results would still most likely be contested. Whether the work of the Chinese, the Norse or Colonial craftsmanship, the Newport Tower is undoubtedly one of America's oldest and most mysterious landmarks.



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Further Reading:

1421 : The Year China Discovered America
Gavin Menzies

Field Guide to Mysterious Places of Eastern North America
Salvatore Michael Trento

Weird America: A Guide to Places of Mystery in the United States
Jim Brandon

Lost Cities of North & Central America
David Hatcher Childress

Norse Discoveries and Explorations in North America
H. R. Holand

Ancient Structures: Remarkable Pyramids, Forts, Towers, Stone Chambers, Cities, Complexes (Catalog of Archeological Anomalies)
William R. Corliss

 

Sources:
1) Holand, Hjalmar R. America 1355-1364 (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946).

2) Corliss, Wiliam R. Ancient Structures (The Sourcebook Project, 2001).

3) Brandon, Jim. Weird America: A Guide to Places of Mystery in the United States (Penguin USA, 1978).

4) Longo, Mark S. "The Rhode Island Tower ," Ancient American, Vol 9. #54

5) Keeler, Clyde E. "Mystery Tower of Newport," Fate, June 1977

6) Menzies, Gavin. 1421 : The Year China Discovered America (Perennial, 2004).

7) Trento, Salvatore M. Field Guide to Mysterious Places of Eastern North America (Owl Publishing Company, 1997).