Perched atop a hill in Newport, Rhode Island, an old stone
tower stands as one of this country's longest enduring architectural
enigmas. Known by many names, including the Viking Tower,
Old Stone Mill, and Mystery Tower, today this landmark is
more commonly known as the Newport Tower.
For over a century debate has raged over the identity of
the builders of this structure. Speculation has ranged from
the Norse to the Chinese to the Norwegians and Swedes. Most
archeologists maintain that the tower was built in Colonial
times and that there is no mystery surrounding its construction.
But the full story of how this great monument came into
being may not yet have been told.
Constructed of small slabs of unfinished stone held together
with a mortar of shells, sand and water, the tower is built
upon eight round columns separated by an equal number of
arches supporting the remains of two upper stories. Now
just over 24 feet in height, it once stood at least several
Interestingly, the Newport Tower was not built around a
perfectly circular plan. From southeast to northwest the
diameter measures 22 feet, 2 inches, but when measured from
east to west, the diameter lengthens to 23 feet, 3 inches.1
This thirteen-inch differential is only one of many strange
design aspects and may be an important clue towards determining
the purpose of the structure.
protected by a high fence, the Newport Tower today stands
as the centerpiece of Touro Park. Its outward appearance
didn't always look so rough though. At one time the sides
were coated with a smooth coating of white plaster, the
remains of which can still be seen clinging to the outer
Archeologists and historians for the most part agree that
Governor Benedict Arnold—grandfather of the Revolutionary
War traitor—had the Newport Tower constructed in the
mid 17th century. As evidence, they point to a passage in
governor Arnold's will in which he refers to the tower as
"my stone-built windmill."1
Of course Governor Arnold never actually states that he
built the structure. He may simply have been referring to
the pre-existing stone tower that now resided on his land.
In any case, all the will really proves is that the tower
was in existence prior to the Governor's death in 1677.
The most convincing evidence for the tower being of Colonial
origin comes from archeological digs performed by W. S.
Godfrey, Jr. in 1948 and 1949. Godfrey's excavations uncovered
many artifacts, all dated to Colonial times. He even excavated
beneath the stone columns where he uncovered a bootprint
consistent with boots worn in the 17th century. These results
logically led him to conclude that the tower was constructed
Further evidence for a Colonial origin was supplied in
1993 when J. Siemonsen had samples of the tower's mortar
carbon dated. His results led him to conclude that the building
was erected between 1500 and 1630, again placing construction
in Colonial times.2 The scientific
evidence seems insurmountable, but many still believe that
there's more to the Newport Tower's origin than is readily
Skeptics point out that the method used to extract carbon
dioxide from the porous mortar used in Siemonsen's carbon
dating has a high potential for error. His results produced
possible construction dates from as early as 1450 to as
late as the 20th century. His pronouncement of a Colonial
origin was based on an averaging of the dates obtained.
These results seem questionable to say the least.
Godfrey's excavations uncovered fragments of the plaster
that once covered the walls of the tower. These fragments,
like many of the artifacts recovered, were found beneath
the foundations of the columns.
It seems straightforward to presume that plaster was not
applied until the structure was completed. Therefore it
has been hypothesized that plaster was deposited beneath
the foundation during a later operation designed to stabilize
the tower at a much later date. Since Colonial artifacts
were found with the plaster, it has been suggested that
the tower was merely reinforced during Colonial times and
that its initial date of construction was actually much
There is a vast amount of evidence for a pre-Columbian
date of construction for the tower. Admittedly, much of
it is circumstantial, but when taken as a whole a reasonably
compelling case can be made for a pre-Colonial date of origin.
If the tower was built for Colonial use, what was its purpose?
Governor Arnold's will seems to indicate that it was used
as a windmill, the function of which would have been to
grind grain into flour. But the tower's construction seems
to be completely at odds with this supposed purpose.
examining the eight pillars that support the upper walls
of the tower, it can readily be seen that the columns do
not sit flush against the upper walls. In fact they overhang
the upper levels by several inches. Proponents of the theory
that the Norse constructed the tower point out that this
design was a common feature of medieval European baptisteries
where an outer structure would be built around the central
The small ledges at the tops of the columns served to support
wooden beams upon which the outer structure could be anchored.
However, if the tower were really built as a windmill, this
outer structure would have interfered with the spinning
sails used by all windmills to harness the power of the
wind. It seems difficult to fathom how these two contradictory
design elements could have coexisted.
The basic eight-pillar design of the Newport Tower is also
highly questionable for a windmill. As Jim Brandon points
out in Weird America, "Windmills are subject to strong
torquing forces and a heavy stone mass atop the rather spindly
circle of pillars would be a very poor engineering solution,
besides being more difficult to build than, say, a solid
damning of all to the windmill theory is the presence of
a fireplace built into the second story of the tower. The
dust produced when grinding grain is highly flammable. Building
a fireplace into a windmill seems utterly inconceivable.
Then there is the matter of the effort required to build
such a structure. It is estimated that the tower contains
more than six thousand cubic feet of stone weighing almost
one million pounds, all of which had to be collected and
carried up the hill for construction.1
It seems unlikely that during the 17th century such a large-scale
building project would have been initiated in Newport. In
the years when the tower is supposed to have been constructed,
the townspeople lived in constant fear of attack by the
natives. Indeed their battles with the native Indians and
the constant threat of attack did not end until 1676 when
the colonists finally dealt the Indians a crushing defeat.1
If the labor were being put towards the construction of
a defensive fort, it might make sense. But
the construction of a fanciful windmill doesn't seem to
correlate well with the circumstances of the times the colonists
So if Governor Arnold's contemporaries didn't build the
tower, who did? Popular local opinion has long held that
the tower was built by the Norse. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
helped to popularize this theory with the publication of
his poem "The Skeleton in Armor" in which he makes
several references to the Newport Tower.2
Proponents of the Norse theory often point to the unit
of measurement they believe was used during construction.
Unlike other Colonial structures that were built using the
English foot, the Newport Tower appears to have been based
using an ancient Scottish unit of measurement known as an
ell which is equivalent to three Norse feet.4
In "America: 1355-1364," H. R. Holand lays out
a convincing case that the Newport Tower was constructed
in the mid 14th century by an expedition consisting of Norwegians
and Swedes. As evidence, he points out the structural similarities
of the tower to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Cambridge,
and the Church of St. Olaf in Tunsberg, Norway.
A channel cutting into the wall of the second story appears
to have been designed to hold a slab of stone that could
be used as an altar. Holand points out that small alcoves
built into the wall both above and below the channel likely
held relics and items of religious import. The design and
orientation of this altar is consistent with practices of
Catholic worship. However, there were no Catholics present
among the early colonists of Newport during the 17th century.1
In 1946 Professor P. Luvfold and M. Bjorndal discovered
a Swedish-Norwegian runic inscription on the west side of
the tower, 14 feet above the ground. The inscription was
translated as the date 1010.2
After a few minutes of searching, I located the proposed
runic letters. The markings are very faint and crude.
The image on the left shows the inscription as it is supposed
to appear. The middle photo highlights the markings as I
saw them. The photo on the right shows the bare stone without
enhancements. The runes could have faded or perhaps my vantage
point wasn't ideal, but nevertheless, the inscription looks
to be anything but conclusive.
In the June, 1977 issue of FATE, Clyde Keeler describes
another inscription that he believes attributes the building
of the tower to the Christian monk, Henrikus Gnupson.5
Again the photo on the left shows the letters as Keeler
describes them. The middle picture depicts the markings
I saw and the right photo shows the unenhanced stone.
are a number of problems with this "rune" that
is supposed to spell out IHC. During my inspection of the
rock, I could find no trace of the supposed C. Furthermore,
the I and H can only be read by selectively accepting and
ignoring the markings on the rock.
Like other forms of rock art, there is no accurate way
to date when these markings were carved into the stone.
Certainly the first inscription existed by 1946, but there's
no way to rule out a recent hoax. This all assumes that
the markings are genuine inscriptions; a fact I'm not completely
The most recent theory proposed to explain the Newport
Tower's origins comes from the book "1421 – The
Year China Discovered America." As the title suggests,
the author Gavin Menzies theorizes that the tower was built
by early Chinese explorers during the 15th century to serve
as a lighthouse.
This startling revelation is based on a comparison of the
Rhode Island tower to a similar structure used as a lighthouse
in the port of Zaiton in Southern China. The towers do look
alike; each built atop eight columns and once covered in
smooth plaster. Other design elements such as the windows
and fireplace are also similar.6
A definitive identity for the builders of the Newport Tower
is still unknown. But there are many clues that once unraveled,
may lead to a satisfactory explanation.
Menzies suggests that a chemical analysis could determine
the composition of the mortar used to build the tower. Chinese
mortar is unique and highly dateable having bits of rice
ground in amongst its other components.6
The city of Newport has not allowed these tests to be carried
out yet, but if they do, a Chinese origin could either be
proven or ruled out.
design of the tower itself still holds a number of unsolved
mysteries as well. For instance, why does the diameter of
the tower vary by a full 11 inches? This discrepancy is
too big to attribute to simple builder error.
One of the most unique design elements in the Newport Tower
is the inclusion of two chimneys built into the fireplace.
During my research into the tower's origin I have yet to
come across a satisfactory explanation for this architectural
peculiarity. The identification of a similar chimney building
style may well produce one of our best leads in determining
who built the tower.
Recently, researchers used ground-penetrating radar to
search the area around the tower. Their results indicated
a number of unusual features that may be evidence for additional
structures once surrounding the tower.7
These buildings may have been part of a church or baptistery
Of course the radar results, like much of the anomalous
data surrounding the Newport Tower, is useless without hard
evidence. A more extensive archaeological dig might just
do the trick. A new excavation could probe deeper into the
earth and perhaps determine if the tower really was merely
reinforced during Colonial times.
However, such invasive research is unlikely to be approved
by the city of Newport anytime soon. And even if it were,
the results would still most likely be contested. Whether
the work of the Chinese, the Norse or Colonial craftsmanship,
the Newport Tower is undoubtedly one of America's oldest
and most mysterious landmarks.
Become an UnexplainedEarth
member for just $2.99
and read the expanded version
of this report that includes almost 100 high-resolution
photos and driving directions to the site. For less than
the cost of an issue of Fortean Times, UnexplainedEarth
members have access to exclusive reports, the Unexplained
Sites Database, Members Only Trip Notes and many other benefits
. UnexplainedEarth Members will also be
able to read Part Two of this report before anyone else,
so sign up today!