Fort Adams is a valuable resource, and a National Landmark structure. This eighty-acre historical site stands ready to serve as an educational facility and a cultural center. It can become a major historic attraction for our State’s tourism industry and help educate the public, especially children, on American history, military culture, architecture, engineering and technology. Fort Adams is a masterpiece of coastal defense and an untapped jewel on Narragansett Bay.
The Fort Adams Trust was founded in 1994 as a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) organization and is charged by its articles of incorporation with directing and supporting the stabilization, restoration, maintenance, and operation of Fort Adams as a historic site; conducting educational, cultural, and interpretive programs and activities; generating revenues that will financially sustain the Trust’s programs; conducting fundraising activities to finance the stabilization, restoration and maintenance of the Fort during the short and long term; holding special events; operating a museum; employing a staff; maintaining a membership; and all other business consistent with the operation of an historic site. The Trust has prepared, with the help of past grants, a strategic master plan that encompasses these diverse requirements.
Fort Adams is a massive work with structural walls constructed of local shale and Maine granite. Alexander McGregor, a Scots mason and Newport resident, oversaw the stonework, which is still relatively intact. McGregor also supervised construction of several other notable buildings in Newport, including the Perry Mill, the Newport Artillery Company armory, Stone Villa, and Swanhurst. Willard Robinson notes in his detailed work on the fort that bricks for the vaulted casemates came from local kilns. At the time he was building the fort, Colonel Totten frequently advertised in the Newport Mercury for New England contractors to provide millions of common bricks. Within the Third System, only Fort Monroe at Newport News, Virginia, and Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas off Key West, Florida, are larger. Neither displays the sophisticated engineering features that make Fort Adams a showcase for the art of fortification. Features of Fort Adams that are uncommon or unique in United States military architecture include galleries under the ditches, counterscarp galleries, underground listening galleries tunneled under the glacis, and extensive outer defenses including the redoubt and tenailles, massive earth-filled, masonry cribs designed to protect the outer face of the fort’s crown work from battering by a besieger’s artillery.
A French officer by the name of Major Louis Tousard was commissioned in the United States Army and between 1798 and 1800 supervised construction of several military works around Narragansett Bay, including an elliptical battery of stone for twelve or thirteen guns at North Point, subsequently named Fort Greene in honor of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene from Rhode Island, and a rectangular fort with two circular towers on the western corners located on Rose Island. Tousard also supervised improvements at Fort Washington, which was enlarged and once again renamed. Because the name Fort Washington had been used for a new fort in Maryland, this work on Goat Island was named Fort Wolcott to honor the Revolutionary War service of Governor Oliver Wolcott.
Another Tousard project during these years was an irregular open work at old Brenton’s Point sited so that about twenty guns could cover the East Passage and an equal number fire in the direction of Newport. An elaborate ceremony was held on the Fourth of July in 1799 to open this new fort and to christen it Fort Adams in honor of President John Adams. Major Tousard addressed the assembled crowd. Over the arch of the gateway was a stone tablet with the inscription:
The Rock on Which the Storm Will Beat
The storm was coming in the form of the War of 1812, but it never beat against Fort Adams. The Royal Navy blockaded the coast of New England during the war, but never attempted to force an entry into Narragansett Bay. This omission was undoubtedly fortunate for Newport. Although the East Passage was covered by fortifications, the works had been declared inadequate by the secretary of war. The other two passages into the bay were essentially open to an enemy fleet. Except for an old battery at Bonnet Point that may have been manned at some time, the West Passage remained unprotected, a fact noted by British naval officers at the time. The Sakonnet River was also unprotected, but the channel was less suitable for large ships, and a stone bridge had been built across the river at Tiverton in 1810. The British failed to take advantage of these weaknesses, however, and the defenses of Narragansett Bay waited out the war without being tested.
On August 10, 1825, Lieutenant Colonel Totten arrived at Fort Adams to take charge of the work of improving the fort. He was to remain in Newport until December 7, 1838, when he left to become chief of engineers of the United States Army. Along the two fronts facing the bay, Totten chose one- or two-level casemates in the style of Montalembert. To protect the rear of the fort from attack from the land, Totten designed a complex set of Vaubanian defenses. The heavy, earth-filled ramparts of that style of fortifications were considered more resistant to the battering of enemy siege artillery than multilevel casemates. To prevent a besieger from commanding the fort from the high ground farther down Brenton’s Neck, Totten constructed a powerful redoubt – a miniature Fort Adams in some respects – near the present Eisenhower House.
During the long period of Fort Adams’s construction, artillery had also been improving. Better gunpowder allowed greater range from smoothbore cannon. Previously the use of shell had been limited largely to short-barreled mortars and howitzers. Because shells were hollow and could vary in weight, guns specifically designed to fire shells were classified by the diameter of their bores rather than the weight of the projectiles fired. In spite of this new development, Fort Adams was designed for 468 conventional seacoast guns mounted both in casemates and en barbette on the upper tier of the fort. No more than a fraction of that number, however, was ever installed. Carronades – short-barreled naval guns firing canister or grape shot – were mounted in the bastions to keep attackers away from faces of the fort. The seacoast guns were still muzzleloaders and were still laid to fire across the East Passage. Ships that might attempt to run the fire of the fort’s guns were similarly armed, although often with guns of a smaller caliber. Fort Adams’s granite walls were generally invulnerable to fire from smoothbore ship’s guns of the period.
In 1876, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1859. In spite of the deteriorated condition of the country’s defenses, Congress promptly cut the Army’s requested budget for fortifications from $3,500,000 to $315,000. Only $100,000 of that was allocated to repair fortifications. The remainder was to be used for experiments with mines and other ordinance.
The period following the Civil War saw revolutionary improvements in artillery, particularly in Europe. Smoothbore, muzzleloading guns of iron that used black powder were replaced by rifled, breechloading guns made of steel and firing smokeless powder. Annual reports of the United States chief of engineers in the early 1880s reflect the opinion that these new weapons had made American coast defenses, once the strongest in the world, obsolete. A West Point professor writing at the time noted that the forts had become, “not only weak, but absolutely more dangerous to the defenders than to the enemy.” A hit from a modern ship’s gun would have turned Fort Adam’s granite walls into splinters as deadly as shrapnel.
Artillery and armorment continued to change during the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. The invention of the aircraft as a means for the military changed the way military planners thought about warfare and the protection of forts. By the end of World War II the protection of Narragansett Bay was a low priority for the United States, and Fort Adams was used for training, drills, and storage only.
Lynne Vaughan Nov 15 2009 I lived with my parents (father was Naval Officer) in the Officers Quarters on Fort Adams in 1955. Would love to hear from anyone who might have been there at same time... AND anyone who has pictures of those quarters.
Sam Brutcher Mar 30 2009 I spent part of 1979 living in the Navy housing at Ft. Adams. I really enjoyed roaming around the old works, especially the windy, grassy areas high above the bay. The tunnels were fun, too – though creepy as others have said. I’m glad to hear someone’s still trying to take care of the place. It’s a unique part of Newport’s history.
Dave Dewhurst Feb 22 2008 To answer Clipper Tefft, yes the Forts Fire Station’s building is still there, however I must regret it is no longer active. I grew up outside the fort, not a Navy brat but a local, that lived close by who’s friends changed every year as there fathers came in and out of the War College. I knew the Fort better than most people. I was employed by the state at slave labor rates the first year construction of the parking lots was started. My fondest memories are of the tunnels also. They are laid out very simple, in fact I could run, in the dark, without a flashlight and “cut off” any one in front of me proceeding at too slow a pace. Which is what I did on my first day of work as the “restoration expert” was showing them to us interns. The look on his face when his flashlight lit me up in front of him...he slammed his head in the ceiling... and I wondered why we had kinda a testy relationship that summer. The tunnels had two “traps” occasionally the ceiling dropped to about 4’ from 5’ the best I can tell is if you didn’t know they were there you smashed your skull into them. The other was a circular stair that had a step missing 1/2 way up. You learned to count steps, and it was no problem running in the dark if you knew about them.The tunnels are whistle clean once you got in a 100’ or so... What I never found was the tunnel to the redoubt, but I know its there, and I had a old blueprint that I got from a friend at the navy public works building that showed it.
Clipper Tefft I grew up in Newport (South Baptist St.) My dad was employed by the Fort Adams fire station for many years during the 1960’s. He was a crash firefighter. I remember learning to ride a bike on the fire station tarmacs. Sliding down the pole inside the station… many good memories!!! Does the fire station still exist? I looked for it on local.live.com they have wonderful aerial views of the entire Fort area.
Terry My best friend and I used to go on day trips to Fort Adams in the late 70’s – early 80’s with his parents and explore the fortifications endlessly. Wandering through the narrow, underground passages with a single flashlight, wading through ankle deep water and imagining the ghosts of soldiers past was quite a thrill. We used to fear getting lost in the bowels of the fort, but that, of course, was part of the thrill (much like the East Side tunnel which also has a large part in the backdrop of my teen years in the ’86 -’88 period). On one memorable occasion, we had packed backpacks for a long day planned of exploring and donned boots to ward off the (real or imagined) rats and I picked up a bottle of some unknown origin and commenced to throw it, Molotov cocktail-style across a dimly lit passage. Whatever foul, congealed substance was in it came out and covered my head and torso. Needless to say, I ripped off my shirt (a blue turtleneck, I recall) and wiped my face and threw the shirt away. I had another in the backpack... refitted, I gamely chose to not dwell on the horror and moved on with our combination game/exploration. I shudder to think of what was actually in that bottle, but it does not eclipse the warm memories I have of wandering the expanse of Fort Adams and trying to penetrate its most hidden depths and secrets. I can’t imagine allowing my kids to do that now – we were unsupervised, fearless and trusted. A combination for good or evil? I still can’t decide, but the memories are good and no one ever got hurt... just a little grossed out!
Michelle I don’t know if anyone else has been here recently, but I went to the Newport Storm festivals here both last year (2006) and this year and I noticed definite progress in the renovations that are going on to the fort. For one, there are now public restrooms open inside the fort, as well another portion that was opened with brand new windows and used as a buffet area during the event. The Newport Storm event helps benefit Fort Adams with its proceeds, so it was good to see that their money is actually making a difference!
Katherine Gamble Fort Adams has tours now, they’re really cool. I went on the tour last year. The tour guides told the history of it and led us down the tunnels within the Fort. It was slightly creepy, but again, very cool to be able to see the whole thing.
Evan Poste I remember some slick business man tried to put on a cheap and trashy Halloween event at the Fort recently. Just another greedy entreprenuer trying to cash in using public property for their gain. The fort would be better served by allowing decent fun entertainment that would be enjoyed for all and possibly benefit the restoration of such a valuable historic resource.
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