The first keeper was Newport native William Dennis. Dennis had gone to sea at a young age and was in command of a merchant vessel based in London, but on receiving word of the outbreak of the American Revolution he returned home to fight for the colonists. During the course of the war he commanded six different privateering vessels and was twice taken prisoner. He later served as sheriff of Newport County for a dozen years beginning in 1801.
Appointing war veterans as keepers was a common practice, but what made this case unusual was the fact that William Dennis was nearly 80 years old at the time he took the job in 1827. He went on to become one of the oldest lighthouse keepers in New England history, serving to the age of 93. His son, Robert, later served as keeper.
The four-room keeper's dwelling and the lighthouse were described around the mid-nineteenth century as the "worst constructed of any in the state," and the lantern was described as "wretched." An 1850 inspection praised Keeper Robert Dennis, saying he was "a good honest man, and I think he shows a good light, although a moderate consumer of oil."
A second 42-foot brick tower and keeper's house were constructed for $4,000 in 1857, with a fourth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light.
George Fife became keeper in 1875. When a fog bell with striking machinery was added in 1878, with the bell protruding from a window near the top of the tower, Keeper Fife's wife was appointed as an assistant keeper to help with the extra duties. She retained the position until she and her husband left Dutch Island in 1883. Another addition in 1878 improved life for the keeper and his family. The early keepers had a well, but the brackish water was not suitable for drinking. A proper cistern for the collection of rainwater was added in the basement of the keeper's house in 1878.
Despite the presence of the light and fog bell, vessels frequently went aground on and near the island. On January 21, 1903, when Albert Henry Porter was keeper, the steamer Seaboard of the Joy Line "nearly knocked the little lighthouse . . . off the rocks," according to a newspaper account. The steamer had been making its way north in a thick fog, and was apparently going a bit too fast when the lighthouse suddenly appeared. Fortunately for the station and its residents, the jagged rocks at the southern end of the island halted the ship's progress about 30 feet from the tower. The steamer was badly damaged, but there were no casualties.
One of the more prominent wrecks at Dutch Island was the Rosalie, which ran up on the island in the early 1900s with a cargo consisting of barrels of white beans. It was reported that local boys found plenty of ammunition for their bean shooters that year.
The lighthouse almost met a premature demise in 1923. Someone was burning trash in the back yard of the keeper's house when the wind picked up and almost set the tower ablaze. Men stationed at the fort helped put out the fire, and only a storehouse was lost.
Several petitions and 40 to 50 letters opposing the move were received by the Aids to Navigation office in Boston, and the Rhode Island Natural Resources Department said the light was needed to guide small craft to Dutch Island Harbor. As a result of this pressure, the Coast Guard not only retained the light, but actually increased its intensity.
Due to rampant vandalism, the Coast Guard again proposed discontinuing the light in 1977. In that year alone, vandals smashed the door and stole equipment. Someone even poured liquid steel into a lock. It was just too expensive for the Coast Guard to keep up with the repairs, and Dutch Island Light was officially discontinued in 1979, replaced by offshore buoys.
Shirley Sheldon of Saunderstown and other nearby residents initiated a preservation effort some years ago. The effort was abandoned when the group realized the deterioration of the lighthouse was worse than they had feared.
A group from the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) visited the lighthouse in May 2000, accompanied by Chris Powell of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Fish and Wildlife. The Dutch Island Lighthouse Society (DILS) was subsequently founded as a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation to work for the restoration of the lighthouse. The lighthouse was found to be in poor condition but restorable. DILS was later recommended for $120,000 in Transportation Enhancement funding under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).
After a formal bid process, Abcore Restoration Co., Inc., was awarded the contract for the restoration. Abcore previously restored the Plum Beach and Pomham Rocks lighthouses in Rhode Island. The federal/state grant covered most of the base cost of restoration ($160,000).
The work was completed in November 2007. At a little after 7:00 p.m. on November 17, the lighthouse was relighted as an aid to navigation. Restoration has included interior and exterior repairs to the brick lighthouse tower, guano removal, replacement of floors and metalwork, and the repair of interior stairs. Graffiti and rust have been covered over, and the tower now has a white stucco finish.
The lighthouse can be viewed from the Fort Getty Recreation Area. There is a fee to enter the area, but if you explain that you just want to photograph the lighthouse you might be allowed in for a short visit.
You can help preserve the lighthouse by donating to:
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Rhode Island by Jeremy D'Entremont.
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 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.)
William Dennis (1827-1843), Robert H. Weeden (1843-1844), William P. Babcock (1844-1846), Robert Dennis (1846-1853), Benjamin Congdon (1853-1859), M. M. Trundy (1859-1865), W. W. Wales (1865-1873 ), Andrew King (1873-1875), George Fife (1875-1883), Mrs. M. Fife (assistant 1878-1883), H. W. Crawford (1883-1885), Lewis T. King (1885 -1901), Albert Henry Porter (1901-1916), John J. Cook (1916-1929), John Paul (1929-1931), John D. Davies (1931-1934?), Stanley Gunderson (c.1934-1935); William C. Anderson (1935-1937), Ernest H. Stacey (Coast Guard BM2, May 22, 1941-May 21, 1947)