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History Bytes

History Bytes: Summer Vacation Getaway

After a long winter in New York City, Col. Washington and Emily Roebling needed a break. In 1882 they rented “Blue Rocks,” the Lloyd Mayer house (later known as “Stella Maris”) at 91 Washington Street, and looked forward to a restful summer with a view of the harbor. Unfortunately, work and family life caught up to them in little Newport.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City. circa 1915. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-74616

Col. Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926) was a Civil War engineer and succeeded his father as the designer and chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, a modern miracle of design and function. Shortly after arriving in Newport, Roebling was strongly criticized by the Mayor of New York and Mayor of Brooklyn, Seth Low, for prolonged delays in the bridge project. Low, (vacationing at “Sunset Ridge” near Castle Hill), and Gov. Edwin D. Morgan, (vacationing on Narragansett Avenue), called for Roebling’s resignation and replacement. Emily Roebling dismissed the action as political in nature and successfully lobbied to keep her husband’s job. Emily was also a driving force in the completion of the bridge in the face of her husband’ declining health due to complications from caisson disease, also known as “the bends.”

Throughout the bridge controversy, Emily had to address the death of her father, Gen. Gouverneur Kemble Warren, on 8 August 1882. Warren headed the U.S. Engineering Office on Thames Street and was the subject of an on-going court of inquiry regarding his conduct at the Battle of Five Forks during the Civil War. He was cleared of all charges three months later.

In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was completed and Emily was honored in her husband’s absence. They returned to “Blue Rocks” later that summer.

Image (top): “Blue Rocks,” the Lloyd Minturn Mayer house, later known as “Stella Maris,” on Washington Street. Photo credit, Bert Lippincott III

History Bytes: Gas Lighting in Newport

During much of December in Newport, sunset is stuck at 4:16 P.M. and people are scrambling to accomplish outdoor tasks before the street lights come on.  Street illumination with candles and smudge pots can be traced back centuries, but gas lighting in America can be credited to David Melville (1773-1856) of Newport. A pewterer by trade and manufacturer of housewares, Melville experimented with hydrogenous gas, made from burning coal and wood. In 1805 he illuminated his house and sidewalk on the corner of Thames and Pelham Streets with gas. By 1810 he had secured a U.S. Patent. With partnerships in Boston and Providence, Melville tried to promote his invention but costs were too prohibitive. He even tried to light the Beavertail Light House with gas in 1817, but lobbying from whale oil interests in Nantucket and New Bedford killed the proposal after one year, despite support from William Ellery and other congressmen. Discouraged, Melville returned to metalwork, but lived long enough to see the creation of the Newport Gas Light Company in 1853.

Image: Diagram of “Double gas apparatus at Newport Light House” from David Melville’s 1817-1818 Meteorological Diary

History Bytes: Newport Cabinetmakers

The Yale University Art Gallery recently unveiled the exhibit Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650-1830 which features several pieces from the Newport Historical Society’s collections, including a side chair made by Job Townsend. The Townsends and their contemporaries the Goddards are renowned Newport cabinetmaking families linked in history through their craft and through marriage.

The first Townsends were early settlers of Providence, as well as the towns of Flushing and Oyster Bay, Long Island. These were New York Quaker communities with many Rhode Island connections. The Goddards descended from Henry Goddard, a weaver from Quedgeley, Gloucestershire (b. 1665), Dartmouth, Massachusetts and Jamestown, Rhode Island.

Later generations of Townsends and Goddards settled in the predominately Quaker section of Newport, “The Point,” and there established friendships through trade, community and the Quaker Meeting. Intermarriages between the families were inevitable, as in the case of two Goddard brothers marrying two Townsend sisters, helping to ensure dynastic survival.

Image: Witnesses at the marriage of John Goddard to Hannah Townsend, held at the Great Friends Meeting House on 6 August 1746, a virtual festival of cabinetmakers, joiners and artisans. Included is the family of Samuel Casey, silversmith of South Kingstown, and kinsman Governor Gideon Wanton.