The Newport Tower stands unheralded in a Touro Park in Newport. Most saunter by it without a second thought. Little do they know it is one of the oldest structures in the state — with a provenance, some say, as mysterious as Stonehenge.
In the last century, numerous archeologists have probed the site, and the prevailing opinion is that the structure — eight-legged and built of stone — is a windmill built in the late 1600s by Governor Benedict Arnold (great-grandfather of the more notorious Benedict Arnold).
But others argue that the legs and the rudimentary mortar holding the tower together could not have withstood the torque of a spinning windmill. Indeed, why the legs at all? And what's the purpose of a fireplace in the second floor of a mill? The tower contains other design elements, it has been pointed out, that are reminiscent of Medieval European baptisteries.
Indeed, some see in the tower a sign of a pre-Columbus visit to the area by any number of explorers. Eight years ago, the British amateur historian Gavin Menzies argued in his book 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America, that the tower was actually an early lighthouse.
And as early as the 19th century, some were suggesting a Viking origin. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow leant support to the theory when he mentioned the tower in his poem "Skeleton in Armor," inspired by the discovery in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts, of a skeleton adorned in unusual armor. (It was destroyed in a museum fire later in the 19th century.)
The tower and skeleton, combined with the unearthing of the "Dighton Rock" — covered in indecipherable petroglyphs — not far from Fall River, provide a hat trick of archeological oddities.
But the latest theory on the tower may be the most entertaining: Texan Arthur Faram, a former military man, cartographer and attorney, suggests that the structure and the so-called Kensington Runestone in Minnesota are not only related, but proof of an early visitation by the Knights Templar — the Catholic military order leant an appealing air of mystery by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
The Newport Historical Society has a collection of all the legitimate investigations and the more far-flung theories over the last 100 years or so. Of all the theories, the "Viking is the most enduring," according to Bert Lippincott of the society. Yet, none of the many archeological digs have "yielded anything that's earlier than the Colonial period," he adds.
As for the Chinese lighthouse theory, Lippincott says it's "the least possible" given that the tower is 2.5 miles from the shore. The tower's design, he says, is actually quite similar to those that were on Benedict Arnold's farm back in Ilchester, England.
And Lippincott is hardly the only skeptic of the most exotic theories. Menzies's book has been pilloried by professional historians. And the Kensington Runestone — supposedly covered in markings that suggest a pre-Columbus Scandinavian visit — is widely considered a hoax.
But investigate for yourself. The tower is located off Bellevue Avenue in Newport. And the Dighton Rock can be viewed at Dighton Rock State Park in Berkeley, Massachusetts, just north of Fall River.