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Chapter 37: The Newport of the Past

FEW of the "carriage ladies and gentlemen" who disport themselves in Newport during the summer months, yachting and dancing through the short season, then flitting away to fresh fields and pastures new, realize that their daintily shod feet have been treading historic ground, or care to cast a thought back to the past. Oddly enough, to the majority of people the past is a volume rarely opened. Not that it bores them to read it, but because they, like children, want some one to turn over its yellow leaves and point out the pictures to them. Few of the human motes that dance in the rays of the afternoon sun as they slant across the little Park, think of the fable which asserts that a sea-worn band of adventurous men, centuries before the Cabots or the Genoese discoverer thought of crossing the Atlantic, had pushed bravely out over untried seas and landed on this rocky coast. Yet one apparent evidence of their stay tempts our thoughts back to the times when it is said to have been built as a bower for a king's daughter. Longfellow, in the swinging verse of his "Skeleton in Armor," breathing of the sea and the Norseman's fatal love, has thrown such a glamour of poetry around the tower, that one would fain believe all he relates. The hardy Norsemen, if they ever came here, succumbed in their struggle with the native tribes, or, discouraged by death and hardships, sailed away, leaving the clouds of oblivion to close again darkly around this continent, and the fog of discussion to circle around the "Old Mill."

The little settlement of another race, speaking another tongue, that centuries later sprang up in the shadow of the tower, quickly grew into a busy and prosperous city, which, like New York, its rival, was captured and held by the English. To walk now through some of its quaint, narrow streets is to step back into Revolutionary days. Hardly a house has changed since the time when the red coats of the British officers brightened the prim perspectives, and turned loyal young heads as they passed.

At the corner of Spring and Pelham Streets, still stands the residence of General Prescott, who was carried away prisoner by his opponents, they having rowed down in whale-boats from Providence for the attack. Rochambeau, our French ally, lodged lower down in Mary Street. In the tower of Trinity, one can read the epitaph of the unfortunate Chevalier de Ternay, commander of the sea forces, whose body lies near by. Many years later his relative, the Duc de Noailles, when Minister to this country, had this simple tablet repaired and made a visit to the spot.

A long period of prosperity followed the Revolution, during which Newport grew and flourished. Our pious and God-fearing "forbears," having secured personal and religious liberty, proceeded to inaugurate a most successful and remunerative trade in rum and slaves. It was a triangular transaction and yielded a three-fold profit. The simple population of that day, numbering less than ten thousand souls, possessed twenty distilleries; finding it a physical impossibility to drink ALL the rum, they conceived the happy thought of sending the surplus across to the coast of Africa, where it appears to have been much appreciated by the native chiefs, who eagerly exchanged the pick of their loyal subjects for that liquid. These poor brutes were taken to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar, laden with which, the vessels returned to Newport.

Having introduced the dusky chieftains to the charms of delirium tremens and their subjects to life-long slavery, one can almost see these pious deacons proceeding to church to offer up thanks for the return of their successful vessels. Alas! even "the best laid schemes of mice and men" come to an end. The War of 1812, the opening of the Erie Canal and sundry railways struck a blow at Newport commerce, from which it never recovered. The city sank into oblivion, and for over thirty years not a house was built there.

It was not until near 1840 that the Middletons and Izzards and other wealthy and aristocratic Southern families were tempted to Newport by the climate and the facilities it offered for bathing, shooting and boating. A boarding-house or two sufficed for the modest wants of the new-comers, first among which stood the Aquidneck, presided over by kind Mrs. Murray. It was not until some years later, when New York and Boston families began to appreciate the place, that the first hotels were built, - the Atlantic on the square facing the old mill, the Bellevue and Fillmore on Catherine Street, and finally the original Ocean House, destroyed by fire in 1845 and rebuilt as we see it to-day. The croakers of the epoch considered it much too far out of town to be successful, for at its door the open fields began, a gate there separating the town from the country across which a straggling, half-made road, closed by innumerable gates, led along the cliffs and out across what is now the Ocean Drive. The principal roads at that time led inland; any one wishing to drive seaward had to descend every two or three minutes to open a gate. The youth of the day discovered a source of income in opening and closing these for pennies.

Fashion had decreed that the correct hour for dancing was 11 A.M., and MATINEES DANSANTES were regularly given at the hotels, our grandmothers appearing in DECOLLETE muslin frocks adorned with broad sashes, and disporting themselves gayly until the dinner hour. Low-neck dresses were the rule, not only for these informal entertainments, but as every-day wear for young girls, - an old lady only the other day telling me she had never worn a "high-body" until after her marriage. Two o'clock found all the beauties and beaux dining. How incredulously they would have laughed if any one had prophesied that their grandchildren would prefer eight forty- five as a dinner hour!

The opening of Bellevue Avenue marked another epoch in the history of Newport. About that time Governor Lawrence bought the whole of Ochre Point farm for fourteen thousand dollars, and Mr. de Rham built on the newly opened road the first "cottage," which stands to-day modestly back from the avenue opposite Perry Street. If houses have souls, as Hawthorne averred, and can remember and compare, what curious thoughts must pass through the oaken brain of this simple construction as it sees its marble neighbors rearing their vast facades among trees. The trees, too, are an innovation, for when the de Rham cottage was built and Mrs. Cleveland opened her new house at the extreme end of Rough Point (the second summer residence in the place) it is doubtful if a single tree broke the rocky monotony of the landscape from the Ocean House to Bateman's Point.

Governor Lawrence, having sold one acre of his Ochre Point farm to Mr. Pendleton for the price he himself had paid for the whole, proceeded to build a stone wall between the two properties down to the water's edge. The population of Newport had been accustomed to take their Sunday airings and moonlight rambles along "the cliffs," and viewed this obstruction of their favorite walk with dismay. So strong was their feeling that when the wall was completed the young men of the town repaired there in the night and tore it down. It was rebuilt, the mortar being mixed with broken glass. This infuriated the people to such an extent that the whole populace, in broad daylight, accompanied by the summer visitors, destroyed the wall and threw the materials into the sea. Lawrence, bent on maintaining what he considered his rights, called the law to his aid. It was then discovered that an immemorial riverain right gave the fishermen and the public generally, access to the shore for fishing, and also to collect seaweed, - a right of way that no one could obstruct.

This was the beginning of the long struggle between the cliff- dwellers and the townspeople; each new property-owner, disgusted at the idea that all the world can stroll at will across his well-kept lawns, has in turn tried his hand at suppressing the now famous "walk." Not only do the public claim the liberty to walk there, but also the right to cross any property to get to the shore. At this moment the city fathers and the committee of the new buildings at Bailey's Beach are wrangling as gayly as in Governor Lawrence's day over a bit of wall lately constructed across the end of Bellevue Avenue. A new expedient has been hit upon by some of the would-be exclusive owners of the cliffs; they have lowered the "walk" out of sight, thus insuring their own privacy and in no way interfering with the rights of the public.

Among the gentlemen who settled in Newport about Governor Lawrence's time was Lord Baltimore (Mr. Calvert, he preferred to call himself), who remained there until his death. He was shy of referring to his English peerage, but would willingly talk of his descent through his mother from Peter Paul Rubens, from whom had come down to him a chateau in Holland and several splendid paintings. The latter hung in the parlor of the modest little dwelling, where I was taken to see them and their owner many years ago. My introducer on this occasion was herself a lady of no ordinary birth, being the daughter of Stuart, our greatest portrait painter. I have passed many quiet hours in the quaint studio (the same her father had used), hearing her prattle - as she loved to do if she found a sympathetic listener - of her father, of Washington and his pompous ways, and the many celebrities who had in turn posed before Stuart's easel. She had been her father's companion and aid, present at the sittings, preparing his brushes and colors, and painting in backgrounds and accessories; and would willingly show his palette and explain his methods and theories of color, his predilection for scrumbling shadows thinly in black and then painting boldly in with body color. Her lessons had not profited much to the gentle, kindly old lady, for the productions of her own brush were far from resembling her great parent's work. She, however, painted cheerfully on to life's close, surrounded by her many friends, foremost among whom was Charlotte Cushman, who also passed the last years of her life in Newport. Miss Stuart was over eighty when I last saw her, still full of spirit and vigor, beginning the portrait of a famous beauty of that day, since the wife and mother of dukes.

Miss Stuart's death seems to close one of the chapters in the history of this city, and to break the last connecting link with its past. The world moves so quickly that the simple days and modest amusements of our fathers and grandfathers have already receded into misty remoteness. We look at their portraits and wonder vaguely at their graceless costumes. We know they trod these same streets, and laughed and flirted and married as we are doing to-day, but they seem to us strangely far away, like inhabitants of another sphere!

It is humiliating to think how soon we, too, shall have become the ancestors of a new and careless generation; fresh faces will replace our faded ones, young voices will laugh as they look at our portraits hanging in dark corners, wondering who we were, and (criticising the apparel we think so artistic and appropriate) how we could ever have made such guys of ourselves.

Eliot Gregory