RHODE ISLAND, the Ocean State

What to see

Newport Newport city
Newport Mansions Chateau-sur-Mer - Kingscote - the Breakers -
Marble House - the Elms - Rosecliff - Rough Point
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cover new england

This is an extract of the main sights in this state, with small photos. You will find the full description and full-sized photos in my e-book View America: New England

In the travel series View America, this book describes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, points of interest and tourist attractions.

It is not a traditional travel story, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 100 full-sized photos.



RHODE ISLAND is officially called the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, but is also known as the Ocean State, or Little Rhody.

It is one of the thirteen original colonies. The "Island" part of the name is confusing, since the state lies almost entirely on the mainland. Some think that the name could be a corruption of an Indian name, but a more convincing explanation is that in 1614 the Dutch navigator Adriaan Block named the island of Aquidneck in Dutch "Roodt Eylandt", which means Red Island, after the red color of the clay along the coastline!

On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island was the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain. Nevertheless, it was the last colony to join the US in 1790, as the 13th state... The capital and largest city is Providence. Rhode Island is the smallest state of the US, with a surface of approximately 3,200 km2. On most maps, the state appears so small as to be almost invisible, but its influence has been important. It is forested for 61%. Next to New Jersey, Rhode Island is the second most densely populated state, although it only counts around one million residents, with a density of 391 per km2.

From the beginning, shipbuilding played an important role, and its ports registered trade ships, privateers, slave ships and pirates. Trade consisted primarily of rum, sugar, molasses, slaves, and later whaling. After the maritime trade, industrialization made its entry, and soon Rhode Island became a real city-state. It still is one of the most industrialized states.

Newport is certainly worth an extended visit. Around 1900, it was the summer residence of choice for the super-wealthy, and many grandiose estates were built with more than seventy rooms. The best-known mansions are the Breakers of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, patriarch of the richest family in the US, Marble House of Alva Vanderbilt, the Elms of coal magnate Edward Berwind, Rosecliff of the silver heiress Tessie Oelrichs, Chateau Sur Mer, the first "summer cottage", Kingscote, etc...



Newport Mansions

After 1860, Newport became a summer residence for the wealthy. After the Civil War, many family fortunes had increased to phenomenal proportions, since there was no income tax. The Golden Years of Newport ran from 1880 to 1914, the beginning of World War I. Gradually, building a "cottage" in Newport became the thing to do, next to organizing huge receptions to entertain business relations and other wealthy people. For instance, in 1857, Wetmore, a China-trader, gave a so-called Fête Champètre for three thousand guests in his cottage Chateau-sur-Mer !

One can easily spend a whole week in Newport, visiting the Mansions and many other stately homes. It is not allowed to take photographs of the mansions' interiors, but many books are available, with beautiful pictures of the most famous homes. The future will probably never again see such an explosion of art and architecture, as can be seen in Newport!

The Breakers

The Breakers was originally the summer estate of Pierre Lorillard IV, a wealthy tobacco manufacturer. It was named for the waves that break on the cliffs behind the house. The mansion's rear garden is really outstanding, and it has a grand sea view. In 1885, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, patriarch of the richest family in the US, bought the mansion, but in 1892 the entire house burned to the ground!

Vanderbilt decided build a new estate, but he insisted that the building be made as fireproof as possible and as such, the structure of the building used no wooden parts. The mansion had seventy rooms, of which thirty-three served the household staff ! The Vanderbilts could easily throw a party for two hundred people, without having to call for external help. The house contains a fifty-five-feet entrance hall, two grand Patios or open terraces, a two-floor kitchen, furniture, glassware, dinnerware, and so on. The house was finished in 1895, and it had cost twelve million dollars! Simply majestic!

Unfortunately, Cornelius Vanderbilt didn't get to enjoy his extraordinary mansion for long, because one year after the Grand Opening he suffered a massive stroke, and he died three years later.

Newport mansions : the Breakers 1 Newport mansions : the Breakers 2
The Breakers
The Breakers


Rosecliff was built in 1902 by the silver heiress Tessie Oelrichs. She was the daughter of James Graham Fair, who discovered the Comstock Lode, the richest silver mine ever found. The lavish Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco is also family owned.

Theresa married the German Hermann Oelrichs, who was the agent of the German Lloyd Steamship Line, which transported nearly everything to and from Europe. She preferred the more mundane Newport over the quiet social life in San Francisco, and wanted a house where grand balls and other social events could take place. Her architect therefore modeled her home after Le Grand Trianon in Versailles, the one-hundred-room summer palace of Louis XIV, but in a slightly smaller version and in the shape of the letter "H".

Rosecliff has a delicate design of light, air, and elegance. The dominant color is white, which was Tessa's favorite color. The extraordinary ballroom measures forty-two feet by eighty-eight feet, and it is twenty-three feet high. The mansion is exceptionally beautiful, and it has been the background for several movies, such as The Betsy, True Lies, The Great Gatsby, and Amistead. Exquisite!