lighthouse established in 1749 at Beavertail Point, at the southern tip
of Conanicut Island, was the granddaddy of all Rhode Island lighthouses
and only the third one—after Boston Harbor and Nantucket’s Brant
Point—in the American colonies.
Today, the light station remains a
prime spot for soaking in the spectacular vistas at the mouth of
Narragansett Bay and is among the most popular historic destinations in
U.S. Coast Guard
Island, about 6,000 acres, was a favorite summer home for Conanicus (or
Quonanicus), a sachem of the Narragansett Indians. English settlers
were first given permission to pasture sheep on the island in 1638, and
a group of about 100 buyers obtained title to the land in 1657, in
exchange for 100 pounds paid in wampum.
island was divided into about a dozen large plots, and much land at the
southern part went to Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the famous
general and traitor of the American Revolution.
The point got its
present name because the southern peninsula of the island resembles a
beaver in shape, with the head at its northern end and the tail at the
U.S. Coast Guard photo
strategic importance of Beavertail, which marks the entrance to both
the east and west passages of Narragansett Bay, was obvious to the
early settlers, as well as to merchants who were concerned about the
safety of their vessels. A watch house was erected at Beavertail
sometime prior to 1705, and a lighted beacon was erected in 1712. Local
Indians tended the beacon.
In 1719, a “great gun” at Beavertail
was provided by the General Court of Rhode Island to “answer ships in a
fog”—in other words, to serve as a primitive fog signal.
foreign trade blossoming from Newport, a number of local merchants
petitioned for a true lighthouse in 1730. A lighthouse was authorized
by the colony in 1738, but war with Spain delayed the project until
1749, when a wooden lighthouse was erected. To pay the costs of
maintaining the lighthouse, a tax was levied on all vessels entering
the nearby harbors. The first keeper was local resident Abel Franklin,
who had been a member of the committee appointed to build the
Painting of Peter Harrison
|1749 tower was 24 feet in diameter at its base, 13 feet
at the top. Its
total height was 69 feet, including an 11-foot-high lantern, 8 feet in
diameter. The lighthouse’s lamps were fueled by whale oil. The
was Peter Harrison, a former sea captain sometimes referred to as
America’s first architect. Harrison also designed Newport’s Touro
Synagogue (America’s first synagogue), Redwood Library, and Brick
Market, as well as King’s Chapel in Boston.
The first lighthouse was destroyed by fire on
July 22, 1753, and it was reported that Franklin subsequently kept an
ordinary lantern burning for the benefit of shipping.
August 1753, a committee was appointed for the purpose of “erecting
another Lighthouse with stone or brick, at the Place where that lately
burnt stood, as soon as they can conveniently.”
It was recommended that building materials from Fort George on
Goat Island be used in the construction. The new tower was built on the
same spot as the first one. The committee determined that two
additional acres of land were needed for the proper building of a new
lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling. The lighthouse was soon rebuilt,
designed again by Harrison.
|Not much is known about the light’s earliest keepers,
but one anecdote
survives in a typescript at the Newport Historical Society called
Historical Story of Jamestown and early days around Narragansett Bay,
by Lena Hartwell Clarke and Elizabeth Clarke Helmick.
It seems his wife
awakened the keeper during a terrible storm. “Husband, husband, wake
up,” she cried. “The British or the Day of Judgment has come.” The
keeper, a gruff old salt, grabbed his musket and replied, “Let ’em
come. I am prepared for either of them!”
The foundation of the original
British occupied Newport from December 1776 to October 1779. William
Ellery, collector of the port of Newport and local lighthouse
superintendent, later described what happened to Beavertail Lighthouse
as the British evacuated the bay:
British in the Revolutionary War set fire to it and the flames so
shocked the walls; especially about the Windows, that, notwithstanding
they are four feet and half thick at the bottom and a half feet thick
at the top, our Masons have not since been able to make them tight and
secure against the impressions of storms of rain.
lighting apparatus from the lighthouse was taken by the British, but
was later recovered. Some of the equipment was later used in other
lighthouses, including those at Point Judith and Watch Hill in Rhode
Beavertail Light Station was ceded to the federal
government in 1793. Administration of lighthouses on the local level
went to the collectors of customs. The customs collector for Newport,
William Ellery, became Rhode Island’s first lighthouse superintendent.
Martin was keeper from the 1780s until his death in 1803. Ellery
described Martin as “well qualified,” and reported that the keeper
diligently worked to keep the lantern’s glass panes free of salt spray.
Ellery reported that the lantern was also plagued by seabirds that
broke the glass with regularity.
- Philip Caswell was
the keeper at Beavertail when the hurricane of September 23, 1815,
toppled the lighthouse several miles away at Point Judith. At
Beavertail, the gale shattered 20 panes of glass in the lantern, and
waves poured into the dwelling through the badly damaged roof. Caswell
moved his wife to a nearby farmhouse, but he rode out the storm himself
in the keeper’s house along with an invalid uncle. A larger keeper’s
house was soon built.
In 1829, a
600-pound fog bell was installed at Beavertail, mounted on a 12-foot
brick tower, and sounding 10 times each minute by means of a clockwork
mechanism that had to be wound by the keeper. It was used only for
about four years, as it was impossible to hear over the sound of the
In 1838, an inspection by Lieut.
George M. Bache reported that Beavertail Light was 64 feet high and 98
feet above sea level, with the light visible for 15 3/4 nautical miles.
Bache described the lighting apparatus:
The lanterns contain fifteen lamps, with reflectors,
arranged around two circular copper tables, each three feet in
diameter. The lower table supports eight lamps, which illuminate every
point of the horizon; on the upper table there are seven lamps, the
vacant space being towards the land... Several of the reflectors are
bent from their original forms, which is probably owing to their great
lightness, their diameters being 9 inches, and weight from 7 ounces to
1 pound; two of them being very much worn and cracked. The light-keeper
informed me that they had been furnished by the contractors on their
last annual visit.
Winslow Lewis fit the lantern
with new lighting apparatus three years later.
Robert H. Weeden became keeper
in 1844. He died just four years later
and was replaced by his widow, Demaris Weeden. The local
superintendent, Edward W. Lawton, described Demaris Weeden as a
“respectable well disposed woman of good habits,” and an 1850
inspection described the lighting apparatus as “in good order and
clean.” The same inspection, however, reported that the tower was badly
in need of repointing and the lantern was described as very rusty.
Demaris Weeden’s teenaged son helped with the lighthouse work.
Beavertail has probably seen
more types of fog signals than any other
New England lighthouse station, starting with the 1719 cannon and the
short-lived 1829 bell. In 1851, a fog whistle was installed,
by compressed air. Celadon Daboll, an inventor from New London,
Connecticut, developed the system. A horse, driving a wheel 10 feet in
diameter, powered the compressor.
- An 1851 report read:
seldom lasts all day. It will require about one-third of the time
(during fogs) to work the horse, to keep up a regular series of
signals. Keeper [Demaris Weeden’s son] makes fog signals when he wakes
up and finds a fog. No means to ascertain if it is foggy; generally
gets up at 1 a.m. to trim lamps.
|Word was received that the new signal could be heard
locations at least six miles away. Edward Lawton, the local lighthouse
superintendent, was awakened by the signal at his Newport home. At
Newport’s Fort Adams, an officer mistook the sound for the whistle of
the mail steamer. The use of a horse to power the signal proved
impractical, however, and the system was used for only about two years.
A new steam whistle, first in the nation, was installed in 1857, then a
fog signal driven by a hot air engine in 1868. The hot air engine was
designed by John Ericsson, the builder of the famous iron-clad vessel Monitor. A new compressed air siren
went into use in 1900, replaced by diaphragm horns and finally by
today's electronic fog signals.
- An 1851 report showed Beavertail Lighthouse to be the
"worst built tower yet seen." $14,500 was appropriated in 1854 for a
new lighthouse, illuminating apparatus and fog signal.
new tower was built in 1856, and the 45-foot square granite lighthouse
still stands. The lantern originally held a third-order Fresnel lens. A
new large brick keeper's house was built a short time later.
Demaris Weeden was still keeper when the new
lighthouse went into
service; she remained until the following year.
After a brief stint by
Joshua Rathbun, Silas Gardner Shaw became keeper.
Shaw stayed for four
years and later returned for six more years in the 1860s. His daughter,
Lena Clarke of Jamestown, recounted some memories in a letter many
we first went there was just a light, a barn and a stone wall around
the government property. We soon had a henhouse, a sty (kept white), a
flower garden, trellis with climbing roses, and a large vegetable
often heard my father tell about a vessel going on the rocks south of
the light and how the men came ashore carrying pails of cider and
rolling pins, part of the cargo.
a severe storm, when another craft was grounded, one of the crew made
his way ashore, carrying a heavy sea chest on his back, and the wind
was so strong it blew him down on the rocks.
my father heard a noise in the night, he always took his gaff hook and
lantern and went along the shore to try to find out what it was. One
night he saved five or six men whose yawl had washed on the rocks, and
brought them to the light to remain during the night.
Lee was keeper between Shaw’s two stints. With his wife and six
children, Lee arrived at Beavertail in a sailboat with a horse in the
bow and supplies in the stern. Lee’s daughter, Ella, later recalled
happy times at Beavertail and said the children all pitched in by
cleaning, sweeping, helping with the garden and animals, and assisting
their mother in the kitchen.
William W. Wales, a native of
Middletown, Rhode Island, who had previously been keeper of Dutch
Island Light for 8 years, began a 22-year stay as keeper in 1873. Wales
and his family were renowned for the excellent clambakes they held at
the light station. Two of the keeper’s sons, John and George, served as
assistant keepers. In June 1895, when the 76-year-old Keeper Wales
died, the Newport Daily News
Wales will be missed by a large circle of friends, as he had an
extensive acquaintance, Beavertail Light having been visited by
thousands of people during his time as light keeper, many of whom have
had the occasion to speak in praise of his hospitality. The flag of the
Beavertail Fishing Club and several others on the island are at half
mast in his honor.
In 1899, a smaller fourth-order
lens that rotated on a bed of mercury replaced the third-order lens.
The lens showed a group of eight flashes, separated by two seconds,
followed by 15 seconds of darkness. During the following year, a new
second-class fog siren was installed. Just five years later, a new
first-class siren was installed along with new engines and air
The year 1900 saw another significant change. The
tower, which had been unpainted until then, was painted white on its
upper half. That color scheme was abandoned many years ago.
of the most colorful personalities in the history of Beavertail Light
was George T. Manders (1870-1954), a navy veteran who was keeper from
1913 to 1937. The fuel for
the light had switched to kerosene in the 1880s, and Manders was there
for the change to electricity in May 1931. Later that year, a reporter
named Thomas A. Langan wrote a profile of Keeper Manders for the Providence Evening Bulletin.
the warmth and security of his living room, in a house attached to the
lighthouse tower, Keeper Manders sits and smokes and talks of “the
light.” He is patently proud of it. It is his job and also his hobby.
He cites the fact that summer visitors from every State in the Union
stop and “go through the light.”
“We have an
off-shore wind tonight,” Mr. Manders observed. “There won’t be any
a sou’easter screeches through here you see some weather,” Mr. Manders
declared. “I remember the night a few years ago when a sou’easter came
through and raised plenty of trouble. I went out to set the fog signal
running and the wind threw me right across the yard, into a wall. I
crept over to the whistle house on my hands and knees.”
lived in the principal keeper’s house with his son, and they had a
radio for entertainment—listening to the nightly news flashes was a
ritual. A housekeeper named Mary Pollock kept things tidy. She had run
a florist shop in Providence, and the plants she cultivated in the
keeper’s house added a warm touch.
Manders had some unusual
hobbies. Using a jackknife, he carved miniature baskets from peach
stones, to be used as watch charms. Each one took about two hours to
carve. “Makes the time go,” he explained.
In a 1970
article, Richard L. Champlin said that Conanicut islanders remembered
Manders as the keeper “who claimed he had seen a white whale; but, they
add, the day that he saw that, it was so foggy you couldn’t see your
fist in front of your face.” Champlin quoted a Jamestown resident:
“George Manders could tell a story before it happened.”
Right: George T. Manders
Manders retired, Carl Chellis took over as keeper on January 1, 1938.
Chellis would stay at Beavertail for a decade. He had the misfortune to
be at the light station for the worst storm in recorded New England
history, the hurricane of September 21, 1938.
Edward A. Donahue
hurricane damaged most of the buildings at Beavertail, and also exposed
the foundation of the original 1749 tower, 100 feet from the new tower.
While the keeper, Carl Chellis, survived the storm, his daughter was
killed as her school bus was toppled on her way home from school.
Chellis's son, Clayton, and the driver were the only survivors on board
the bus. Ironically, Clayton Chellis drowned seven years later while in
the U.S. Navy in Saipan.
Assistant Keeper Edward A. Donahue threw himself into
the ocean to escape the engine room, which was collapsing around him,
believing "it was the easiest way to die."
Donahue's son dove in to try to save his father, and
both were eventually able to swim back to shore and find shelter.
Edward Donahue remained at Beavertail until his death in1953, a veteran
of over 40 years in the Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard.
Richard Chellis, a docent at the Beavertail
Lighthouse Museum, is the son of Keeper Carl Chellis.
During World War II, the lighthouse shared
Beavertail with Fort Burnside, a Harbor Entrance Control Point
monitoring the movement of ships in and out of Narragansett Bay.
In 1954, when a powerful hurricane struck the coast,
a chimney collapsed in the kitchen of the keeper's house, blocking an
entryway to the other house. Coast Guard keeper Dom Turillo helped his
children through the window and they escaped to the other house, where
they survived the storm unscathed.
and his wife, Dorothy, raised 11 children at Beavertail, where they
remained until 1970 (with a break in the middle, when Turillo worked at
sea). Years later, their daughter, Linda Levesque, recalled life at the
lighthouse. She and her older brother often helped wind up the
clockwork mechanism that rotated the lens, and they raised and lowered
the flag every day.
Other memories included white-glove
inspections of the station by Coast Guard officers—the children would
sit on the sofa and watch. The Coast Guard keepers kept the premises so
clean that “could have eaten off the engine room floor,” according to
Levesque. She also remembered her father securing himself with a rope
and swimming out to rescue boaters who had become trapped in the rocks.
Coast Guard keeper Dominic Turillo. Courtesy of the
Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association
The light was automated in 1972; Dom Turillo was the last
Coast Guard keeper. After automation Beavertail Light ran into
recurring problems with vandalism. The light was shot out by gunfire in
1975 and remained dark for several days before it could be repaired. It
cost about $1,700 to fix the beacon and broken windows. Capt. R. J.
Hanson, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Group Woods Hole, Massachusetts,
commented, "I'd like to have some of these vandals out there on the
bridge of an inbound tanker some night and let them see what it's like."
The fourth-order Fresnel lens, which had replaced the
original lens, was removed and replaced by a modern optic.
Beavertail Light is located within Beavertail State Park
and is easily accessible by car. The light itself remains an active aid
to navigation and is maintained by the Coast Guard.
The assistant keeper's house, built in 1898, was leased
to the Rhode Island Parks Association in the late 1980s and has been
converted into the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum.
Inside the tower
A fourth-order Fresnel lens is on display along with
exhibits on Rhode Island's lighthouses, and there is also a small gift
lighthouse tower has deteriorated over the years. After being
awarded a grant award of $227,000 from the Champlin Foundations and a
$100,000 matching grant from the RI Historical Preservation and
Heritage Commission, the BLMA hired
the Abcore Restoration Company, Inc. of Narragansett, RI, to carry out
restoration work in the summer and fall of 2009.
The project was
completed in October 2009. The exterior stonework was repointed, and
the lantern and interior were
fully restored. At the same time, significant repairs were carried out
on the two dwellings.
Click here for full details of the
A view from the top of the tower
with Point Judith in the distance
For more information, or to become a member of the Beavertail
Lighthouse Museum Association and receive their newsletter, contact:
Lighthouse Museum Association
P.O. Box 83
Jamestown, RI 02835
- You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Rhode
Island by Jeremy D'Entremont.
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
- Abel Franklin (1749-?); Jerathmeel Bowers (1770), Josiah
Arnold (1770-?); William Martin (c. 1780s-?); Philip Caswell
(1803-1816); George Shearman (1816-1829); Sylvester Hazard (1829-1844);
Robert H. Weeden (1844-1848); Demaris Weeden (1848-1857); Joshua B.
Rathbun (1857-1858); Henry Rathbun (assistant, 1857); Silas Gardner
Shaw (1858-1862 and 1863-1869); E. E. Taylor (assistant, 1859); William
Spooner (assistant, 1859); William H. Carr (1859-1862); Benjamin W.
Walker (assistant, c. 1862); W. Weeden (1862); Albert Caswell
(assistant, 1862); Peter Lee (1862-1863); Christopher Austen
(assistant, 1863); William Batchelder (assistant, 1863-1864); Ann N.
Shaw (assistant, 1864-1869); Thomas King (1869-1873?); Andrew King
(assistant, 1869); W. W. Wales (1873-1895); John Wales (assistant
1885-1888); George B. Wales (assistant 1888-1895, head keeper
1895-1913?); George T. Manders (1913-1937); Carl Chellis (1938-1945);
Edward A. Donahue (assistant 1920-1947, keeper 1948-1953); Domenic
Turillo (Coast Guard, 1954-1970); John Baxter (Coast Guard, 1970)