Walking Up and Down the Cliff Walk by Nancy Markey
One of Newport’s most popular attractions is its famed Cliff Walk, a meandering three-and one-half-mile public walkway that hugs the Atlantic Ocean from Memorial Boulevard to Ledge Road. In its early days, the Cliff Walk was an uninterrupted promenade traversing windswept farmland along the cliffs on Newport’s eastern coastline.
Over time, landowners and Mother Nature have transformed the Cliff Walk’s dimensions, course, and accessibility. One such landowner, William Beach Lawrence, a renown New York jurist, purchased 60 acres of oceanfront farmland between Bellevue Avenue and the cliffs in 1844, naming his estate “Ochre Point.” His property included the section of the Cliff Walk between Narraganset Avenue and Ruggles Street. Lawrence eventually sold an acre of land to his friend George Pendleton, a senator from Ohio, who built a modest cottage facing the ocean and abutting Lawrence’s homestead. Purportedly, Lawrence immediately regretted the sale.
To create a barrier between his estate and Pendleton’s, Lawrence erected a tall stone wall along their shared property line. According to legend, the wall extended across the Cliff Walk to the ocean’s edge, blocking public access to the walkway. Although Pendleton took no action, the outraged public tore down the wall blocking the path and hurled it into the sea below.
Declaring the path belonged to his estate, Lawrence defiantly repaired the wall, adding broken glass to its top. Townsfolk again razed the wall, citing ancient “fisherman’s rights,” written into the 1663 Royal Charter, that guaranteed the public “privileges of the shore to which they have heretofore been entitled.” Indeed, inhabitants had been enjoying unfettered access to the path along the cliffs prior to the granting of the Charter.
In 1843, the fisherman’s rights were incorporated into the newly adopted Rhode Island state constitution, codifying the public’s right to access the Cliff Walk. Nonetheless, 19th-century Ochre Point “cottage” owners grew increasingly frustrated and annoyed with the public’s relentless presence within the confines of their estates. They complained bitterly the path had become a “public resort” where “excursionists bring their pasteboard lunch boxes and newspapers and camp on the most beautiful spots prying on the privacy of the cottagers", creating a “Sunday picnicking atmosphere.” Day-trippers and locals ignored “Please Keep Off the Lawn” and “No Trespassing” signs and trampled on velvety lawns, peered into great arched windows, and relaxed on sprawling marble piazzas taking in spectacular views.
These transgressions by the public propelled Ochre Point estate owners into action, with the Goelet brothers, Robert and Ogden, leading the way. Robert’s “Southside” estate was located on the corner of Narragansett and Ochre Point avenues. His tolerance of the public reached a breaking point with the “denuding of his superb hydrangea bushes of their pink and white blossoms.” Mindful of the ancient fisherman’s rights claim, Robert took the unusual recourse of lowering the Cliff Walk on his Southside property by seven feet. This depression hid his mansion from the public’s view and made access to his property via the Cliff Walk impossible. His brother, Ogden, owner of the neighboring “Ochre Court,” quickly followed suit and lowered the pathway on his estate.
Pedestrians entering the Cliff Walk at the popular Narragansett Avenue entrance must descend a series of stone steps to gain access to the narrowed path skirting Goelet’s Southside property. After following the sunken path across this estate, the Cliff Walk abruptly ends at Webster Street, a public road running east from Bellevue Avenue to the Cliff Walk and dividing the Goelet estates. To reunite with the path, stairs lead up to the roadbed and then down to the Ochre Court estate, where the Cliff Walk waits below. After this brief detour at Webster Street, the depressed pathway continues along the Ochre Court estate, stopping at the former Pendleton property line. Here, a final set of narrow stairs rests at the bottom of the hill. Atop these steps, the Cliff Walk resumes its course to Ledge Road.
Conflicts between oceanfront landowners’ desire for privacy and the public’s yearning to access the ocean are not unique to Rhode Island or 19th-century society. However, Rhode Island’s long history of protecting the public’s right to walk on Newport’s beloved Cliff Walk challenged two Ochre Point estate owners to find a way to preserve their privacy without interfering with the public’s rights. Lowering the pathway in front of their properties not only achieved this objective but gave new meaning to “walking up and down the Cliff Walk.”