The lighthouse established in 1828 at Nayatt Point, on the east side of the entrance to the Providence River, proved insufficient to warn navigators of the dangerous sandbar extending out from Conimicut Point across at the west side.
On February 27, 1874, Horace W. Arnold was appointed keeper. Arnold, a Rhode Island native and Civil War veteran, had just served two years as an assistant keeper at Beavertail Light. A little over a year later, in early March 1875, Arnold was at the five-room keeper's dwelling at the light with his young son, when drifting ice, driven by strong northeast winds, abruptly smashed into the structure.
The Arnolds were lucky to escape with their lives as the house broke apart. They were rescued several hours later by the tug Reliance, captained by Nat Sutton. Sutton spotted Arnold on a mattress on a drifting ice floe, later describing him as "sitting like a man on a magic carpet." The keeper's hands and feet were frozen and it was some months before he could fully resume his duties.
Horace Arnold was credited with saving the lives of five people during his 12 years at Conimicut Light. An article in the Newport Daily News mentioned in passing that one of Arnold’s sons lost his life after a fall from the lighthouse onto the rocks below, but no details were provided and it’s not clear if this report was accurate. Arnold left in 1886 to become keeper of the lighthouse at the northern tip of Conanicut Island, where he would stay for the remaining 28 years of his career.
The early keepers generally remained at the offshore
lighthouse for a few years at most, but Daniel MacDonald remained for
11 years, 1895 to 1906.
When he heard his brother’s frantic cries, Leslie took instant
action. Easing himself down until he was waist deep in water, Leslie
extended the pole far enough for Melton to grasp it. With his older
brother exhorting him to hang on, the boy was pulled to safety.
About three weeks later, Leslie received a letter from Wilbert
E. Longfellow, commander of the Rhode Island department of the United
States Volunteer Life Saving Corps. “I fully realize the very natural
antipathy which any person has of an icy bath in the winter,” wrote
Longfellow, “and the courage it took to make the plunge for the little
chap who had fallen in.” A few weeks later, a party from the corps
arrived at the lighthouse to present Leslie with a medal of honor for
his cool-headed rescue.
The crew's water supply came from rainwater collected in a basement cistern. The water was piped to the kitchen by the use of a hand pump. "On occasions Bob Reedy would pour a gallon of bleach in the cistern as a precaution," says Onosko. "I still remember how bad the water tasted after that."
18-year-old Fred Mikkelsen was assigned to Conimicut Light in 1958. The officer in charge when Mikkelsen arrived was First Class Boatswain's Mate Joe Bakken. When fog rolled in, the old Gamewell Fog Bell Striker was put to work. The machine "had to be maintained, oiled and cleaned," according to Mikkelsen. It ran about two hours on 10 minutes of winding. The bell would be struck automatically every 10 seconds, but inside the tower the noise of the striking machine was louder than the bell. If the striker stopped, "the silence would wake me from a sound sleep," Mikkelsen recalls.
During Bob Onosko's year at the lighthouse, he was frequently alone and there were never more than two men on duty. During Mikkelsen's three years, the official complement of four men was never realized.
Mikkelsen's scariest experience in his three years at the
lighthouse was a 1960 hurricane. At the height of the storm, the
surging sea blocked all sunlight through the galley windows on the
first level. When he went to the lantern to check the light, Mikkelsen
became aware that the lighthouse was moving in the storm, with the
greatest movement near the top. "It would bang you against the wall,"
he says, "and you had to hang on to the handrail of the ladder."
The boarded-up lighthouse has held up fairly well in the intervening years. A 1955 boat landing, made of wood, was badly damaged by ice and was replaced by a new steel landing in 1994. Personnel from Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Bristol had painted the exterior of the tower in the previous year.
Below are some photos submitted by Fred Mikkelsen, who lived at Conimicut Light from 1958 to 1961 as the Coast Guard Assistant Oficer in Charge and Engineman:
Keepers: (This 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 email@example.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Davis Perry (1868-1869), H. Perry (assistant, 1869), ? Healy (1869-1871), C. Rounds (?) (assistant, 1869-1870), Charles A. Wells (assistant, 1870), Robert H. Tobin (assistant, 1870-1871), John Walker (1871-1874), James King (assistant, 1871-1872), Benjamin (?) King (assistant, 1872), William Crawford (assistant, 1873), ? Beaumont (assistant, 1874), Horace Arnold (1874-1886), Francis E. Arnold (assistant, 1878-1881), E. M. Buckingham (assistant, 1881), Benedict A. Winslow (assistant, 1881-1882), Ernest L. Arnold (assistant, 1882-1884), Benajah B. Gray (1886-1890), Edward L. Hunt (1890-1892), Joseph B. Eddy (1892-1894), Thomas S. Fishburne (1894-1895), Daniel MacDonald (1895-1906), Joseph Burke (1906), E. R. Curtis (1906-1907), Daniel L. Reardon (1907-1909), Nicolai Jensen (Jansen?) (1909-c. 1920?), Ellsworth Smith (c. 1921-1922), ? Powell (?-c. 1957), Bob Onosko (Coast Guard, 1957), Bob Reedy (Coast Guard, c. 1957), Fred Mikkelsen (Coast Guard 1958-1961)