I love a good mystery and of the many mysteries in New England, the origins of Newport’s Stone Tower is one of the most enigmatic. What is it? Who built it? This controversial structure’s origin has long been an object of debate by historians, scholars, scientists, philosophers, and amateurs alike. Everyone, it seems, has a theory about what it is but no one knows for sure.
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Some think it was built by the Vikings, many think it was Benedict Arnold’s grandfather’s mill. Another theory and one of my personal favorites is that it was constructed by the Knights Templar to hide the Holy Grail. There are many more.
One thing’s for sure; it is one of the oldest stone structures in America and there is no record of who built it. This mysterious structure sits atop one of the highest hills in Newport in Touro Park and the tower once had a commanding view of the harbor but over time trees in the park have grown to obstruct the view.
The tower is circular and constructed of mostly local flat stones held together with a type of mortar. The tower is 28-feet in height and approximately 24-feet in diameter. The walls are three feet thick making the interior about 18-feet in diameter. The interior walls were at one time coated with smooth white plaster, the remnants of which may be seen on the interior faces of several pillars. On the ground level, there are eight arched columns. Each arch is seven and a half feet high.
Inside the tower, above the arches, there are notches in the wall for crossbeams that would have held up a wooden floor. On this second floor, there are three small square windows, one of which faces the harbor. There is also an ancient fireplace with a flue which goes up between the inner and outer walls. At the very top level, there are three very small windows.
I can imagine whoever built the tower sitting in front of the fire thinking about life almost 400 years ago. Because the tower appears on maps drawn around 1650.
So who built the tower and what is it. There is no agreement on the origins of the tower. Each expert and researcher has a different theory. The mainstream view is that the structure was a windmill built by Benedict Arnold’s grandfather but why would someone build around the mill with arches, fireplace, windows, and lots of fancy stonework. I’m not really buying this theory. However, excavations there over the years have yielded early colonial artifacts and no Viking swords.
A new theory offers that Prince Henry Sinclair of the Orkney Islands led an expedition to the New World a hundred years before Columbus in 1398 and that he and his followers built the tower.
Another possible builder was the Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real who disappeared on an expedition to North America in 1502. He was on a search for his brother Gaspar who also had disappeared while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. He disappeared while sailing south from Newfoundland.
I like to think that this enigmatic tower is more than a utilitarian mill. Did the Vikings erect this curious tower? Or perhaps it was the Knights Templar or globe-trotting Chinese? It endures today as one of America’s oldest and most mysterious structures.