Ancient Lime Kiln found at Newport, RI

Mystery Solved! The “Lime Mill” that Built the Tower

Discovery of Newport’s Missing Industrial Lime Kiln

Gunnar Thompson, Ph.D.

New World Discovery Institute

January 22, 2015


At some distant and controversial point in Newport’s Past, a team of experienced stone builders from the British Isles constructed a round tower in the scenic preserve that is known today as Touro Park. Were these renegade artisans the same bunch of Colonial philosophers who bequeathed to Rhode Island a passion for freedom of religion and justice? Were they a band of marooned Templar Masons from 14th century Scotland? Or were they just a random gang of professional handymen that Governor Benedict Arnold selected to build a more-durable stone mill to replace a wooden windmill that blew down in the furious Windstorm of 1673?

Until now, most historians have favored the “Windmill Theory;” but that enduring explanation is about to be replaced by one that is better-suited to the facts.

In April of 2014, an anonymous Patron of the Arts commissioned archaeologists and historians at the New World Discovery Institute to take a fresh look at the evidence. We were asked to determine if it was possible to reconstruct a new scenario of what really happened during those murky eons long ago when the City of Newport began to rise up from the marshes along Narragansett Bay. We are pleased to announce that we have found evidence of a previously unrecognized stone structure that was hidden away for many centuries beneath the skirts and girdle of an old Colonial mansion.

This investigation has been undertaken with the invaluable assistance of Jennifer Robinson at the Newport Historical Society and Museum. The Museum is located on Touro Street – not far from the spectacular and mysterious Old Stone Tower, or as some say: “the Old Stone Mill.” Ms. Robinson’s familiarity with the Photographic Archive enabled her to pinpoint key evidence from a collection of thousands of items. She identified for our research a series of snapshots that have been dated to 1898. They were taken by a professional photographer who was intrigued by the unusually grandiose stone and brick “chimney structure” that emerged from behind a cloak of plaster and lath that was removed when the dilapidated Sueton Grant House was demolished and hauled away to the City Dump. This incidental and fortuitous photo-shoot – more than a century ago – was pivotal to our investigation. It was already determined by Norman Isham’s research in 1895 that the same masons who built the Old Stone Tower also built the chimney foundation in the Grant House. If we could identify new clues from these old photographs, then there was a chance we could unlock the secrets to a mystery that has endured for several hundred years: “Who built the Tower?”

New Clues in the N.H.S. Photographic Archive

The Old Stone Tower is America’s Oldest Monumental Building erected by European masons. Whether it was built before, or after, the Columbus Voyage of 1492 is of pivotal importance to our understanding of American History. Hence, the origin of the Newport Tower has been an enduring dilemma for historians. Commander Francis Drak... Thompson, Gunnar Best Price: $45.76 Buy New $21.95 (as of 02:05 EST - Details)

The Tower is a circular structure of stone masonry that was erected above an arcade level consisting of eight stone pillars. The approximate height is 28-feet (about 8.5m); the outside diameter varies from about 24 to 25-feet (7.3m); and the wall thickness is about 3-feet thick (or .91m). The walls are unusually wide for Colonial structures; and they constitute an enormous amount of weight that is carried by the eight pillars.

Part of the structure includes buried foundation stones that lie beneath each of the eight pillars. The approximate weight includes about 40 tons of stones. There is an additional weight of about 5 to 8 tons of cement. Chemical testing and magnification of surface material indicates that the lime used in making the mortar was obtained from “burned” or roasted oyster shells. This was a common source for mortar in most Colonial buildings during the early 17th century – as the shells were readily available in waste dumps at nearby Native villages. Remains of a small, six-foot diameter lime kiln have been excavated at the James Town archaeological site in Virginia dating to the early 1600s. A kiln of this size was sufficient for producing about four sixty-pound bags of lime; and this would supply enough mortar (mixed with sand) to build several small ovens or a basic house chimney. However, the typical kilns used by early European settlers in the 17th century were entirely inadequate for the demands of a structure like the Old Stone Tower at Newport. Erecting a forty-ton stone tower would have required the operation of an “industrial-grade” lime kiln.

One of the glaring problems with the early history of Newport, Rhode Island, has always been the total absence of remains from a suitable lime kiln that was up to the task of providing lime mortar for building the Old Stone Tower when it was supposedly erected in 1673. By that point in time, most of the lime used in making mortar for chimney construction seems to have come from outside of the community – possibly from industrial kilns being operated at Providence or New Holland (later, New York City). Furthermore, the imported lime wasn’t made from oyster shells; it was made from roasting crushed limestone (which in modern times is the principle source of Portland cement). Small, oyster-shell kilns are difficult to find in the archaeological record, because most of the small stones were reused in chimneys. On the other hand, it is incredibly unlikely that residents of Newport during the mid-to-late 17th century would have even used oyster-shell lime mortar – when a supply of cheap limestone cement was readily available by ship from nearby sources. Ancient Egyptian Maize I Thompson, Gunnar Best Price: $13.33 Buy New $21.95 (as of 02:05 EST - Details)

A clue to this mystery was identified in one of the 1898 Sueton Grant House demolition photographs (P9745) from the N.H.S. Archive. The photo shows what appears to be a medieval-style foundation arch beneath the ground-floor Colonial fireplace and chimney. This incredible photo, showing a 14th century medieval arch beneath a Colonial fireplace (built in about 1650) was first published in a book by Antoinette Downing and Vincent Scully, The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island 1640-1915 (1967, Plate 26). A drawing of this structure is presented with other illustrations at the end of this report. Two rectangular openings or “vents” are clearly visible right above the medieval arch. Vents of this type were common features of medieval lime kilns in the British Isles – although they were quite rare in Colonial and post-Colonial kilns of New England. The eclectic style of masonry in the foundation arch, featuring a triangular keystone in the center, was characteristic of Norman-Scottish and Irish construction in the British Isles during the 14th century. Use of oyster-shell lime cement was also common at the same time in Norman-Scottish construction.

As Norman Isham noted in 1895, the style of arches and composition of mortar used in the Grant House and the Old Stone Tower are identical. Thus, we are confident in concluding that the masons who built both structures were the same; and both were constructed at approximately the same point in time. The enduring notion among historians that the Old Stone Tower was built in 1673 – during the Colonial Era – has rested almost entirely upon a brief and casual mention in the Last Will of Benedict Arnold in 1675 that he owned the “stone-built wind milne.” He certainly owned the structure – as it was situated on his property; and he certainly regarded the Tower as being a “windmill.” Indeed, the building was similar in size and shape to common, stone-built windmills in England and Holland. These mills generally used a rotating turret top that housed the wind sails (or propeller) that operated the gearbox and grindstone. However, rotating tops required special tracks and gears that were not available in New England until the beginning of the 18th century.

Almost identical masonry to that used in building the Old Stone Tower can be seen in 14th century Norman-Scottish ruins in the Orkney Islands and at the Scottish-built Hvalsey Church in Greenland. However, aside from the two contemporaneous buildings at Newport – using eclectic masonry with triangular keystones – the eclectic style with accordion-shaped arches and triangular keystones was entirely unknown in New England Colonial architecture. This is most-certainly an “intrusive” design feature in Newport architecture during the 17th century. Nu Sun: Asian-American... Thompson, Gunnar Best Price: $38.42 Buy New $146.03 (as of 07:40 EST - Details)

More surprises awaited us as we examined other photographs provided by the N.H.S. Archive Service. There were three similar arches in the foundation of the Sueton Grant House! Two of these had rectangular vents of the sort that were found in similar lime kilns in ruins dating to the medieval British Isles (11th to 14th centuries). Furthermore, the three “foundation arches” in the Grant House were built as separate structures – although they abutted against each other at the ends. This method of construction was not commonly encountered in the foundations that are designed for houses and chimneys. House foundations are typically interconnected along the entire perimeter of the superstructure that they are intended to support. However, separation of the three sections used for a kiln would not impair the function of burning or cooking oyster shells; and the presence of cracks between the three units could be explained as providing expansion-and-contraction joints in a structure that had to allow for frequent and considerable heat and cooling. An industrial kiln of this sort functioned a lot like a blast-furnace: the oyster shells were baked by a continuous blast of hot air and flames over a period of three consecutive days. The Newport lime kiln was probably fired by coal (obtained either locally or imported from Fife or Baffin Island). A single firing of oyster shells would produce several thousand pounds of lime. Thus, we have identified evidence of a structure at Newport that was suitable for “milling” adequate amounts of lime that were needed to build the Old Stone Tower.


Extensive Internet research regarding lime kilns, masonry styles, and arches in Colonial America and Medieval Europe confirms the probable time of construction for the Old Stone Tower as being the late 14th century. The masons were most-likely Norman-Scottish – that is, they were trained in masonry traditions of Northern Scotland (which at the time was still regarded as a Nordic Province). Between 1365 and 1410, agents of Denmark and the Kalmar Union were involved in the resettlement of refugees from the Eastern Settlement of Greenland. The Settlement was a Western Province of Norway (and hence also of the Kalmar Union that consisted of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Western Province of Landanu – that is, the “New Land”).

Naturally, Queen-Regent Margaret Atterdag and her successor, Erik of Pomerania, were deeply concerned about the welfare of their distant Christian subjects; and their care and protection were under the direct responsibility of the current Earl of the Orkney Islands – Prince Henry Sinclair. About 4,000 farmers were desperate to escape from the Arctic onslaught of the Little Ice Age. As they had no suitable oceangoing vessels to carry their belongings to new homes in the southern territories along the Eastern Seaboard, they were entirely dependent upon Norman-Scottish merchants, or perhaps Hanseatic sea captains, for ferry service. As the owner of a merchant shipping company, Sinclair was in a position to provide ferry service – which was probably done with the condition that farmers pay for their transport by turning over a portion of future earnings from goods – such as stockfish and turkey corn – that were produced for transport to the markets of North European ports.

Giovanni Verrazano’s Report in 1524, which mentions “a white Native Tribe” and residents of Narragansett Bay who were “inclined to whiteness” suggests that one of the destinations of refugee farmers included the shores of Narragansett Bay. Doubtless, Nordic refugees who were transplanted to this region soon lost their ethnic and racial distinctions by merging with the local Narragansett and Wampanoag People. Legends or reports concerning the presence of a hybrid Native-European Colony in this region were probably a factor in the decision by Gerhard Mercator to identify “Norombega City” as the Capital of a European Colony alongside the shores of Narragansett Bay on his World Map of 1569. Other new settlements included Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New York, and the Carolinas. Thus, Colonial settlers reported numerous contacts with “White Indians,” Welsh, Irish, and Nordic residents who were eager to trade furs and fish for coveted iron tools and fabrics from Europe. These early European settlers in the New World provided a “cultural bridgehead” that facilitated the survival of new immigrants from the Old World.



Downing, Antoinette F., & Vincent J. Scully. The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island 1640-1915. New York: American Legacy Press, 1967 (Plate 26).

Isham, Norman. Early Rhode Island Houses. Providence: 1895.

Morrison, Hugh. Early American Architecture. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1952, 95.

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