2017-07-06 / Nature

Hanging Rock - the Ancient Lookout

By Charles Avenengo

Hanging Rock is one of the island's most recognizable landscapes. 
(Photo by Carmen Rugel) Hanging Rock is one of the island's most recognizable landscapes. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) Hanging Rock is Aquidneck Island’s most distinctive natural geological feature. Its unique rock formation, called “Puddingstone,” or “Purgatory Conglomerate,” which emerges from the forest of the Norman Bird Sanctuary, has seen a lot in its 300 million years.

Back then, land masses were continually breaking apart and colliding, eventually creating a massive mountain chain along today’s east coast. This, combined with additional collisions, upheavals, erosion, volcanoes, Ice Ages and the like, was the recipe that eventually produced the distinctive formation.

That last Ice Age came and went, and in its retreat, carved out the current topography of the Narragansett Bay, where we live today.

With the retreat of the glacier, humans colonized the North American continent. A shell midden is located on the Sanctuary’s Shady Glade trail, close to Hanging Rock. A shell midden is an archaeologist’s treat, the remnants of a shell heap indicating the bounteous and plentiful discards of the shellfish the Narragansett Tribe indulged in during the summer months. During these feasts, lookouts may have been posted on Hanging Rock in order to keep an eye out for marauding Wampanoags, who were their bitter rivals.

In April 1524, having defeated the Wampanoags and in firm control of their namesake bay, a Narragansett lookout might have been surprised upon seeing a speck of a sail on the horizon, Verrazano’s vessel “La Pensée.” The sighting represented the first vanguard of the eventual mass European migration to the New World.

European colonization ensued. By 1638, Aquidneck Island was deeded by the Sachem’s Canonicus and Miantotomi to the original European settlers to the island. The land was divided accordingly, with Nicholas Easton receiving the share around Hanging Rock. He began farming the area. It was a pastoral time, with livestock grazing in the fields surrounding the rock outcropping. If any cows wandered off, all Easton had to do was climb up the rock, scan and relocate them.

A century later, Bishop George Berkeley, one of the premier philosophers of his time, emigrated from Ireland to Middletown. His favorite perch was Hanging Rock, which for a long time, was called “Bishop Berkeley’s Seat.” Influenced by John Locke and Isaac Newton, it was here, while gazing upon the Atlantic, that he was inspired to advance his theory of “immaterialism.”

The winds of war were not far off. In 1777, a British military force occupied Newport. At the time, Newport was an important Colonial city, one of the five biggest along the Eastern Seaboard. With an eye on expelling the British occupiers, a colonial army was amassed. Ferried over from Little Compton, the Colonists entrenched themselves at a number of locations throughout Middletown. This would have included Hanging Rock, with sentries stationed atop to watch for the British. In addition to the imbedded Colonials, an allied French fleet was to conduct a coordinated attack from sea, forming a pincer effect. However, a powerful storm hit on the eve of the battle. The French fleet took a battering and was forced to withdraw. While the Battle of Rhode Island never happened, remnant battlements of these Revolutionary War fortifications can still be found near Hanging Rock.

The ridge also inspired painters. It was the subject of many artists, including the Hudson Bay School landscape painter John LaFarge, who devotedly and repeatedly painted the celebrated landmark, “Bishop Berkeley’s Seat.”

In the 1880s, geologist T. Nelson Dale of the fledgling United States Geological Survey and a prominent member of the Newport Natural History Society, analyzed the Puddingstone of Hanging Rock and concluded it consisted of quartz, mica schist, slate and other stones that had been fused together over the centuries.

The property changed hands through the generations. Eventually, Mable Norman Cerio became the landowner. Upon her death in 1949, she gifted the grounds to create the Norman Bird Sanctuary.

In 1988, Sanctuary Director Larry Taft had the current chain-link fence erected along Hanging Rock Road, in order to dissuade continued intrusion. Trespassing was curtailed.

And this brings us to today. Annually, thousands of visitors to the Sanctuary trek out to the rock and enjoy the sweeping vista, whose viewers follow in the footsteps of countless generations of humanity.


“The Story of Hanging Rock”

WHEN: Thursday, July 13, 6 to 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Norman Bird Sanctuary

COST: $10 members, $12 nonmembers.

INFO: Event for ages 8 and up.

Rain date: Thursday, July 20.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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