In 1673, a tavern opened its doors in Newport, Rhode Island. It advertised its offerings with a sign depicting a white steed, the universal symbol for a public house. More than three centuries later, the White Horse still stands, the oldest operating tavern in the United States.
With the colonies in their infancy, there were few spaces for local politicians to gather in the 17th century. The tavern filled this void, hosting Rhode Island’s general assembly until its Colony House was built in the 1730s. Lured by the promise of a warm fire and a strong drink, merchants and scholars rubbed elbows with commoners and pirates. Sometimes the person serving the drinks was a swashbuckler himself: William Mayes, Jr., was a notorious pirate who returned to Newport with a pillaged bounty and inherited the tavern from his father in 1702.
The establishment, which formally became the White Horse Tavern in 1730, survived some of the country’s most tumultuous years. During the Revolutionary War, the British lodged Hessian mercenaries at the White Horse, forcing the owner, Walter Nichols, and his family out. After the war was over and the colonies won their independence, Nichols returned and refurbished his tavern.
But the centuries of wear and tear took a toll on the White Horse. By 1954, the building was in desperate need of repair. The Newport Preservation Society took on the job of meticulously restoring the building, and it reopened in 1957 after the restorations were complete. Today, visitors can enjoy classic New England cuisine, artifacts such as a colonial-era 13-star flag, and the 17th-century architecture, all under the watchful eye of the tavern ghost, who apparently lurks just to the right of the dining room fireplace.