NEWPORT, R.I. — Early Thursday afternoon, a pedestrian called police to report hearing a “loud noise” by the rocky bluffs that sweep down into the ocean.
When first responders arrived at Newport’s iconic Cliff Walk, which draws nearly 3 million visitors each year for its views of Gilded Age mansions and manicured lawns, they saw an approximately 20-foot chunk of the walk had broken off and tumbled into the water. A landslide of rubble poured from a broken section of the retaining wall beneath the walkway near 40 Steps and Webster Street.
The city was perplexed to find that damage was not in one of the “areas of concern” identified during its 2014 assessment of the 3½-mile trail that skirts the ocean.
“We’re calling this a ‘catastrophic event,’” Tom Shevlin, a spokesman for the city of Newport, said on a call Friday afternoon. “It was a beautiful day and a storm wasn’t involved. But Mother Nature is a really fierce adversary when it comes to caring for these coastal features.
“Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn more about what happened at this very small, but important, part of the walk,” he said.
The walk is a public way that winds through private property, and different sections are owned by different people or entities. Shevlin said the city handles day-to-day maintenance and regularly makes necessary repairs on the walk, as do private property owners.
“I wish It was as simple as saying it was Agency A or Agency B that owns the Cliff Walk. But because of its long, important history, it’s more complicated,” he said.
When asked if having multiple owners makes it more difficult to maintain the walk, Shevlin said, “Quite the opposite. It makes it easier to secure more funds.
“There’s been a number of property transactions in the area in the last 18 months. There’s a lot of private work and improvements being done. And it seems like all the owners want to help and preserve the walk,” said Shevlin.
Meeting minutes posted by the Newport Cliff Walk Commission show that wealthy private property owners and nearby Salve Regina University, which has property along the Cliff Walk, have helped fill cracks and make repairs.
The trail last had a major assessment in 2014, after Superstorm Sandy caused significant damage throughout the trail. “That was end-to-end devastation,” said Shevlin.
Those repairs took about 2½ years and cost about $5.4 million, and focused on damaged areas and sections that could be affected by climate change. The part of the walk that was damaged on Thursday was not part of that effort.
“The southern part of the walk usually gets hammered by coastal storms. But that’s not where this part of the wall is,” Shevlin said.
When asked what makes constitutes an “area of concern” that requires maintenance, he said the city looks at it through the lens of a coastal storm.
“But this area doesn’t jut out. It’s relatively protected from wave action,” he said. “When we see sections that have waves crashing in, degrading the rock, it’s elsewhere on the wall. Here, the geological features of this section form a mini cove.”
“But it has been a very wet few years, and we continue to see water tables changing across [Aquidneck] Island,” Shevlin said. “It’s still too early to tell, but we are looking at this from an erosionary event that probably came from groundwater instead of seawater.”
The commission, which meets monthly, has reported “areas of concern” in the past, including most recently some erosion taking place on the inland side of the Breakers mansion’s overlook. It has recommended that rocks or gravel be laid there in the fall or winter, “depending on resources.”
Peter Janaros, a former engineer with the state who oversaw the construction of the Jamestown Bridge, serves as the commission’s chair. He reported in a meeting recently that he would be speaking to Salve and to The Preservation Society to come up with a plan for filling cracks from Webster Street to the Breakers.
In September 2021, the commission reported that a wall needed to be repaired between Webster Street and Narragansett Avenue and cracks needed to be sealed. The owners of Ochre Point and their contractor agreed to repair and seal the cracks in the Cliff Walk’s pavement from Memorial Boulevard to Webster Street, which is near where the walk broke off on Thursday. Those cracks were sealed in November 2021.
The city said Salve students regularly raise funds to put toward the Cliff Walk’s preservation, and the university is working with the commission to secure grant funding from a local organization to start another engineering assessment. That assessment will also identify areas that the city can get “shovel ready” to “take advantage of the infrastructure dollars that are starting to flow from Washington, D.C.,” Shevlin said.
He said the city is looking to secure about $100,000 from that grant.
“We also have a good base line from the Superstorm Sandy restoration,” Shevlin said. “The areas that were restored as part of the Sandy restoration have held up really well. Now we are looking at those areas that didn’t suffer the damage during Sandy. Those areas we want to improve.”
But both the Preservation Society of Newport County and Salve spokespeople told the Globe that they “do not have any responsibility for maintaining the Cliff Walk.” Yet, Salve owns the property at 16 Ochre Point Ave., which also includes where the Cliff Walk is located, according to property records.
Shevlin said what the city does not know, and won’t know for several weeks, is if any geological features could have contributed to wall’s erosion over time.
“Was this a natural evolution of the area? We’re just not sure yet,” he said. “This is an event we haven’t seen before since it is not related to a coastal event.”