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The Newport Of The Past
by [?]

Few of the “carriage ladies and gentlemen” who disport themselves in Newport during the summer months, yachting and dancing through the short season, then flitting away to fresh fields and pastures new, realize that their daintily shod feet have been treading historic ground, or care to cast a thought back to the past. Oddly enough, to the majority of people the past is a volume rarely opened. Not that it bores them to read it, but because they, like children, want some one to turn over its yellow leaves and point out the pictures to them. Few of the human motes that dance in the rays of the afternoon sun as they slant across the little Park, think of the fable which asserts that a sea-worn band of adventurous men, centuries before the Cabots or the Genoese discoverer thought of crossing the Atlantic, had pushed bravely out over untried seas and landed on this rocky coast. Yet one apparent evidence of their stay tempts our thoughts back to the times when it is said to have been built as a bower for a king’s daughter. Longfellow, in the swinging verse of his “Skeleton in Armor,” breathing of the sea and the Norseman’s fatal love, has thrown such a glamour of poetry around the tower, that one would fain believe all he relates. The hardy Norsemen, if they ever came here, succumbed in their struggle with the native tribes, or, discouraged by death and hardships, sailed away, leaving the clouds of oblivion to close again darkly around this continent, and the fog of discussion to circle around the “Old Mill.”

The little settlement of another race, speaking another tongue, that centuries later sprang up in the shadow of the tower, quickly grew into a busy and prosperous city, which, like New York, its rival, was captured and held by the English. To walk now through some of its quaint, narrow streets is to step back into Revolutionary days. Hardly a house has changed since the time when the red coats of the British officers brightened the prim perspectives, and turned loyal young heads as they passed.

At the corner of Spring and Pelham Streets, still stands the residence of General Prescott, who was carried away prisoner by his opponents, they having rowed down in whale-boats from Providence for the attack. Rochambeau, our French ally, lodged lower down in Mary Street. In the tower of Trinity, one can read the epitaph of the unfortunate Chevalier de Ternay, commander of the sea forces, whose body lies near by. Many years later his relative, the Duc de Noailles, when Minister to this country, had this simple tablet repaired and made a visit to the spot.

A long period of prosperity followed the Revolution, during which Newport grew and flourished. Our pious and God-fearing “forbears,” having secured personal and religious liberty, proceeded to inaugurate a most successful and remunerative trade in rum and slaves. It was a triangular transaction and yielded a three-fold profit. The simple population of that day, numbering less than ten thousand souls, possessed twenty distilleries; finding it a physical impossibility to drink all the rum, they conceived the happy thought of sending the surplus across to the coast of Africa, where it appears to have been much appreciated by the native chiefs, who eagerly exchanged the pick of their loyal subjects for that liquid. These poor brutes were taken to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar, laden with which, the vessels returned to Newport.

Having introduced the dusky chieftains to the charms of delirium tremens and their subjects to life-long slavery, one can almost see these pious deacons proceeding to church to offer up thanks for the return of their successful vessels. Alas! even “the best laid schemes of mice and men” come to an end. The War of 1812, the opening of the Erie Canal and sundry railways struck a blow at Newport commerce, from which it never recovered. The city sank into oblivion, and for over thirty years not a house was built there.