Built by ancient astronauts?

Touro Park, Bellevue Avenue, Newport
(401) 846-1398 (Newport Recreation Department)

In a town bursting with historic buildings, this structure may be Newport's most controversial. Known variously as the Old Stone Mill, the Norse Tower, the Viking Tower, or the Mystery Tower, this cylindrical stone artifact stands at one end of Touro Park. Its twenty-four-foot-high walls are made of lime-mortared fieldstone and its interior is open to the sky. Arches separate the legs and small, square openings are scattered in the wall above. The puzzle is that no one knows for sure when, or by whom, the tower was built. Or, for that matter, why.

Colonial stone masons

Of the two most popular theories, the simpler one, and the one favored by academics, is that the tower was of Colonial construction. It may have been built by Governor Benedict Arnold (great-grandfather of the patriot/traitor) around 1675, after a wooden windmill belonging to Peter Easton blew down in a hurricane. Its design may have been patterned after a mill near Arnold's boyhood home in Chesterton, England. Support for this theory comes from Arnold's 1677 will, in which he twice refers to his "stone built windmill."

Viking stone masons

Then there are those who claim the tower was built by Vikings who visited North America 1,000 years ago. They point out that while Arnold may have used it as a windmill, there is no proof anywhere that he actually built it. Perhaps he merely used an otherwise abandoned ancient ruin. This view is supported by some suggestive evidence. Broad interpretations of vague references in historical Norse sagas have led some to believe that Vikings visited Mount Hope Bay between the years 1000 and 1004 AD. More concretely, similarities have been noted between the stone tower and early church buildings in northern Europe, leading to the conclusion that the tower could originally have been a Viking church. Viking-theory enthusiasts note that the Newport tower is oriented to the true points of the compass, as were churches in Denmark and Norway.

The Viking-origin-theory can be traced to one guy, Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish scholar. In 1837 he published a series of letters known as Antiquitates Americanae, in which he did a very impressive job of making the facts fit his theories, employing the exact opposite of the scientific method. Although Rafn's thoughts on the Old Stone Mill were based only upon poorly drawn architectural renderings, that didn't stop later scholars from expanding on his ideas in much the same suspect manner. Scholars pretty much agree that the Vikings did make it to North America, as various artifacts of Norse origin have been found on the eastern coast of Canada, most notably at L'Anse aux Meadows. However, no such objects have ever been found as far south as Massachusetts or Rhode Island.

Portuguese stone masons

Another less popular theory, but one which may be more rooted in reality, is that the tower was built as a fortified church and watchtower by Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real, who disappeared in the North Atlantic around 1502. The late physician/historian Manuel Luciano da Silva, in his book Portuguese Pilgrims and Dighton Rock, argues that the tower and its stonework resemble structures which were then prevalent in Portugal. He also notes that carvings found on a boulder in Berkley, Massachusetts, have been linked with Corte-Real's ill-fated expedition and that a cannon and sword unearthed at Fort Ninigret, in Charlestown, also appear to be of Portuguese make.

Elizabethan stone masons

Jim Egan, curator of the Newport Tower Museum adjacent to Touro Park, has a theory, too, and he'll gladly spend hours telling you about it if you're willing to listen. He believes the builders of the tower were part of a secret mission to establish a British toehold in North America in 1582-'83. The architect of the plan was John Dee (1527-1608), a brilliant mathematician, cartographer, navigator, astronomer, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Egan believes that, in June 1582, Dee sent a small expedition consisting of "two ships and a pinnace" to Narragansett Bay with the express purpose of building the tower as a sort of stone-work multi-tool—marker of conquest, church, astronomical time piece, and camera obscura all in one. And listening to Egan you really get the impression that his fantastic theory might have some legs. He argues that the reason no-one has heard of John Dee's connection with the Newport Tower is that, duh, the whole effort was top secret. And besides, the failure of the larger 1583 expedition, led by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, guaranteed the mission would receive only the smallest of footnotes in the annals of history.

Egan's theory in his own words:

Other stone masons

Everyone wants to claim credit for the Old Stone Mill, or ascribe its construction to one pre-Columbian group or another. Did druids build it? Was it the Knights Templar, fresh from the Crusades and looking for new heathens to convert or kill? Could it be that the Chinese, who, according to author Gavin Menzies, circumnavigated the globe in 1421, constructed the tower as a device to determine longitude? Or were local Indians, many of whose descendants are today skilled stone workers, responsible for this enigma?

Scientific investigation

The debate shifts back and forth to this day, with one theory or another seeming to gain ground with every new bit of evidence that comes to light. In 1848 the mortar of various city buildings, including Governor Benedict Arnold's tomb and a stone house on Spring Street dating from 1639, were compared to mortar from the tower and found to be "identical in quality and character."

An extensive archaeological dig in 1949 uncovered some 20,000 artifacts, including a fragment of a rusty meat cleaver, bits of clay pipe, a horse tooth, and coins. Additionally, bits of grinding stones, a gunflint, and, believe it or not, a footprint, were found. The grinding stones seemed to lend credence to the theory that the tower had been used as a grist mill, and the Colonial-style shoeprint, found in a layer of clay deeper than the tower's footings, should have decided the question of the tower's builders for good. But it didn't, and investigations continued.

In 1993, Carbon-14 dating of mortar samples, by Hogne Junger of Finland and Jogen D. Siemonsen of Denmark, yielded a range between 1440 and 1710 AD, meaning that a pre-Columbian origin for the tower could not be ruled out. It did put a dent in the Viking theory, however.

Another archaeological project seemed finally to have resolved the riddle, when diggers located a trench ringing the structure (originally dug to receive the footings for the tower). They uncovered Colonial artifacts at the bottom and under some of the columns, showing use of the property by colonists prior to the structure's existence. Since none of the 6,000 to 7,000 artifacts found beneath the footings predate the 17th century, it seems highly unlikely that the tower existed prior to that.

The Romance of the Myth

Still, the Viking theory seems to be the one that fuels the imagination. In the late 1840s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the tower in his poem, The Skeleton in Armor. Today, a number of local businesses, including the nearby Hotel Viking, Viking Cleaners, and Viking Tours, continue to trade on the romance of the myth; at one time, the Hotel Viking even had a mural that depicted Norsemen building the tower.

Further information, as well as an extensive list of resources regarding the Old Stone Mill and theories on its construction, can be found on the Redwood Library and Athenaeum website.

Park Sign Text

Photo taken in March 1994. When we last saw the sign, in August 2000, it had been whitewashed. Now it's gone. Is someone trying to keep you from learning the TRUTH?



Cost: free

Time required: allow 15 minutes

Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk

Finding it: from Route 195 in Massachusetts take exit 8 to Route 24 west; follow Route 24 to Route 138; follow Route 138 to Route 138A (Aquidneck Avenue); Aquidneck Avenue becomes Memorial Boulevard; turn right onto Bellevue Avenue; Touro Park is on your left; park near Mill Street or Pelham Street and walk in.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to construction or glandular fire ants. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited March 18, 2015

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