This Small Town Used to Be the Fourth Largest City in America

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Several of America’s largest cities today were also the largest cities in the United States before it became the United States in 1789. However, a town that barely qualifies as a city in 2019 was the fourth largest in the country in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

In 1720, Boston was America’s largest city with a population of 12,000. Boston was followed by Philadelphia with 10,000 and New York with 7,000. Newport, Rhode Island, was fourth with a population of 3,800. While New York City’s population has risen 1,157 times since 1720, Newport’s is up only seven times and it has a population of just over 25,000 today. As a matter of fact, New York City has become one of the 50 largest in the world.

Newport was founded in 1689. It became a trade center just after that time. As a whaling port, it was one of the biggest providers of sperm whale oil in New England. Among other industries then were the manufacturer of ships and textiles. The major religious groups in Newport at the time were Quakers and Jews.

Newport eventually became a center for the slave trade. According to the Newport Historical Society, “a central paradox in Newport and Rhode Island’s early history was the combination of a commitment to liberty in the religious realm with a willingness to participate in the practice of enslaving other human beings.”

Today, Newport’s primary industry is tourism. Among the reasons people come for vacation is to see the massive mansions built along the water. Rich Americans, mainly from New York and Boston, built these homes designed by leading architects. This includes the famous Breakers built by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1893. The house had 70 rooms and was designed to look like Italian palaces from the 1600s. Ironically, Newport has some of Rhode Island’s largest areas of low-income housing.

Newport has so many visitors in the summer that according to travel site Trivago it has 309 hotels. Many are built so that they have views of Rhode Island Sound.  The entire west side of the city is along the water and is attached to the rest of Rhode Island on that side by Newport Bridge, which goes to Jamestown.

Unlike some of America’s largest cities today, Newport is shrinking and has lost over a third of its population since 1960. But, for the time being, it is not one of America’s fastest shrinking cities.

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