Rhode Island’s beautiful beaches draw hordes of out-of-state visitors each year, and shopping in Newport is another unfailing attraction. But I want to suggest that Rhode Island’s rich history, and the sites asociated with it, are undervalued as a reason to visit the Ocean State. Take Fort Adams, easily accessed along Newport’s famed Ocean View Drive. Fort Adams State Park is a fun place to walk and enjoy the views of the water–you can see the Pell Bridge, Rose Island Lighthouse, and, in the proper weather, any number of sailboats and other boats out for a ride in Narragansett Bay–but your experience of it is enhanced if you know something about the history of the fort itself.
The present-day Fort Adams isn’t the first one at this spot. The original was established here in 1799, for protection against possible foreign invasion. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1793 had made Americans uneasy, and coastal fortifications were deemed essential to protect our fledgling country from foreign invasion. One of the results was a fort at what came to be known as old Brenton Point to protect the vulnerable Narragansett Bay, with its three openings to the Atlantic Ocean—the East Passage, West Passage, and Sakonnet River.
Then came the War of 1812 and the burning of the nation’s capital by the British. In his 1817 inaugural address President James Monroe, anxious to avoid similar situations in the future, called for beefed-up coastal defenses, and it was decided that the original Fort Adams needed to be replaced with something much larger. The location here was absolutely crucial. If a fleet of invading enemy warships were to make their way into Newport harbor and up Narragansett Bay, it would be clear sailing, so to speak, to interior parts of New England and even into New York.
Construction of the new Fort Adams began in 1824 and was completed in 1857. From 1825 to 1838 the work was superintended by U.S. army officer Joseph G. Totten, America’s leading expert on fortifications. In 1953, the Army gave Fort Adams to the Navy. In 1965, the fort was given to the state of Rhode Island for the formation of Fort Adams State Park and, in 1976, Fort Adams was declared a National Historic Landmark.
My favorite plaque at Fort Adams tells the story of the Irish connection to the fort. The construction of this feat of military engineering was a vast undertaking, and there was insufficient manpower available for the task. What to do? The solution was provided by Irish immigrants, five hundred families who came from Ireland seeking freedom and relief from famine. Newport’s substantial Irish population can be traced back to the construction of Fort Adams in the nineteenth century.
Fort Adams State Park offers guided tours or, if you wish, simply the opportunity to walk around and be amazed by the sheer dimensions of what I believe was the largest coastal fortification in the country. For further details on visiting, etc., please visit the Fort Adams website.
The photos on this page are from the collection of images I made at Fort Adams in August of last year. To view the rest, please visit this section of my website to see these first images in my new Historic Rhode Island Gallery.