Looking for Newport's Own

The explorer Clarence King ended up where he began.

By Robert Wilson

Like many old cemeteries in places not unambiguously flat, Island Cemetery in Newport, R.I., occupies ground high enough to look down on a prominent local landmark, in this case, the two towers of the Newport Bridge. The sky up here on this fall day is empty of clouds, pure blue, and the cemetery is empty, too. The phrase "not another living soul" comes to mind, although the dead ones are everywhere—at least 12,000 of them. Newporters have been laid to rest on this sun-beaten hillside since the mid-17th century, when the Common Burial Ground next door was established.

The earliest remaining graves are marked by plain blue-slate headstones carved at the top into wings, but as life in Newport grew grander and grander, so did the markers, culminating in the construction of a memorial chapel by financier August Belmont Sr. in the 1880s. Some say the remains of Belmont's father-in-law, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who spent his boyhood only a few hundred yards down the hill on Walnut Street, are interred there. (St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in New York City also makes that claim.) But I've come in search of another Newport notable, one who did not open Japan to the West, as Perry did, but helped open the American West to the onslaught that followed the transcontinental railroad. His name was Clarence King, and he and Newport have been on my mind for a long time.

King climbed mountains, headed great geological surveys, and wrote important literary and scientific books. Although much admired in his day—no less a person than Henry Adams thought him the most gifted man of his generation—he has mostly fallen out of history. The second half of King's life did not fulfill the promise of the first, and he was soon forgotten. He was born over at the corner of Church and High streets in 1842 and put to rest somewhere in this cemetery on the second day of January 1902.

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