Newport's Cliff Walk History
Local historians suggest that the first established paths along the Cliff Walk
shoreline were outlined by the local deer ... then the Narragansett Indians ...
followed by the colonials who harvested whatever they could including random
salvage floating ashore from ship wrecks.
During the last half of the 1800s, the summer getaway for the wealthy New Yorkers spread from the center of Newport's harbor area to this undeveloped coastal shoreline.
The city was a fantastic center of Victorian extravagance in architecture and social competition of millionaires benefiting from the industrial revolution. Many of the great mansions built during those times were ideally located on this scenic overlook of the Rhode Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean. Serious development of Cliff Walk started about 1880, and the estate owners spent the next 50 years (to about 1929) improving the walk piece by piece. The Great Depression threw the walk development into the deep freeze.
Over the last 150 years the public and some of
the wealthy estate owners have often clashed over access rights both along the
shore and to the shore. Even today there are disputes at several points both
along the walk and at public access points.
Owners at times have moved paths to more dangerous routes; erected walls, fences and boulders directly across the Walk; planted bushes and trees to block or discourage access to the walk; and posted dogs and even bulls to scare people away.
Cliff Walk was protected by the combination of long term public use, the "Fisherman's Rights" granted by the Colonial Charter of King Charles II, and a passage in the Rhode Island Constitution that granted the public "rights of fishery and the privileges of the shore to which they have heretofore been entitled." Now centuries of prior use have guaranteed the legal right of people to walk along the cliffs.
The walk's construction was originally just a path along the shoreline. In some areas the public moved a few stones aside, some owners neatened their portions of the walk, others built tunnels or bridges in a public spirited move to make the walk enjoyable to the public.
In effect the walk is a public right of way over private property owned by the waterfront property owners. The walk historically was really a path or trail with many rustic components, and in some spot has never changed.
The 1938 and 1954 hurricanes destroyed a number of areas and the Walk could have deteriorated completely. In the 1970-1976 time frame the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent about two years supervising basic repairs using gravel, asphalt, and rocks weighing tons fitted to form revetments. Both the City and State also contributed funds for repairs covering about 9200 feet between Newport Beach to the west property line of Marble House at Sheep Point. (the second tunnel going south).
The Chairman of the Cliff Walk Committee during those years was Claus von Bulow and he was assisted by one of Newport's colorful mayors Humphrey "Harp" Donnelly III.
Further improvements were made in the early 1980s and funded by the National Park Service Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 1993 and 1994 an additional $3.4 million was spent on new retaining walls to check erosion along the northern cliffs and to repair damage from Hurricane Bob that occurred in 1991. The most recent renovation was completed in 2004. Work included the area south of Ruggles Ave. and extended to Baily's Beach.
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Friends of the Waterfront, PO Box 932, Newport, RI 02840