Newport Harbor was visited by intrepid navigators in the 1500s who were struck by the beauty of Narragansett Bay and its sheltered harbors. In 1639, the city of Newport was founded by 42 colonists seeking personal and religious freedom and the opportunity for commerce and trade via the ocean. The excellent harbor soon became a thriving seaport and by the mid-1700s Newport had swelled to 4600 inhabitants with an equal number of commerce vessels entering and departing our waters.
With sea captains defying British tax collectors and evading detection by the Royal Navy, Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce British rule by declaring independence on May 4, 1776. The British occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War emptied Newport Harbor of merchant ships and marked the eclipse of Newport as a major international port. Newport was the only port in The Revolution that was host to three fleets, the American 1776, the British 1776-1779, and the French 1780-1783. It is in Newport that the plans for the decisive Battle of Yorktown were drawn up.
During the War of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry, who had directed the construction of gunboats in Newport, was the victor of the Battle of Lake Erie. His brother, Matthew Perry opened the orts of Japan in 1853 by a show of force in Tokyo Harbor. These brothers often sailed in Newport Harbor as youngsters.
Newport was ‘rediscovered’ in the 19th century, first by southern planters and then by wealthy industrialist seeking sea breezes and a tonic climate during the summer months. Stately hotels and ‘cottages’ were built in Newport and the city was linked to New York by the great steamships of the Fall River Line. Sailing became a desired pastime of the wealthy summer residents. The America’s Cup Races attracted the finest sailors of the world to Newport Harbor for a half century until Australia claimed the ‘auld mug’ in 1983.
Our defense by the sea was early established by Fort Adams (named for President John Adams) with artillery fortifications guarding Newport Harbor while the United States Navy sailed our waters in the harbor and the bay.
During World War II, the Torpedo Station on Goat island was in operation from 1869-1952, manufactured and tested a substantial number of the torpedoes used by our submarine fleet. In the late 1950s two destroyer piers were built to accommodate naval ships homeporting in Newport. The Naval War College, founded in 1884, offers advanced courses for military personnel from the United States and foreign navies and armies in the fundamentals of warfare, international diplomacy and interservice operations.
The Naval War College Museum, inaugurated in 1978, sits high on a hill overlooking Newport Harbor in Founder’s hall on Coasters Harbor Island and features as its themes the history of Naval warfare and the history of the Navy in Narragansett Bay.
The Newport Harbor Waterfront hosts the Museum of Yachting, Sail Newport, The Fort Adams Sailing Association, The New York Yacht Club, and in the harbor, the Rose Island Lighthouse.
Newport Harbor is fortuitously bordered by the Castle Hill Coast Guard Station, Fort Adams, and the continued presence of the United States Navy in Newport.
In addition, commercial maritime ventures lining the harbor include Parascoldolo & Sons, Inc., Aquidneck Lobster Company and the Newport Shipyard.
Vessels in Newport harbor have included ferry boats, coal barges, schooners laden with product, passenger and freight steamers, catboats which served as both working and recreational craft, fishing vessels, twelve meter yachts crewed by those who challenge the sea in pursuit of a dream, United States Navy and United States Coast Guard vessels, the splendid Tall Ships form many nations, and the magnificent sailing and power yachts of yesteryear.
Commercial fishing vessels anchor alongside million dollar yachts and commerce vessels at several downtown docks. Newport Harbor enjoys the diversity of fishing, sailing, regattas, rendezvous’, races and unlimited recreational boating.
In Newport harbor a 12-foot dinghy or a 150-foot tall ship receives a hearty “Welcome!!!”
-by Patience Connerton
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