From its earliest history, Narragansett Bay’s East Passage was crucial in serving naval vessels, maritime commerce and a developing local fishing industry. For the duration of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), the Naval Academy was moved temporarily from Annapolis to Newport. Following the war, a permanent Naval Base was established on Newport’s Goat Island (1869).
There were several navigational hazards for vessels approaching Narragansett Bay. Prior to 1853 when Brenton Reef was first marked by a lightship, a buoy was in place at the S.W. part of the rock reef. The 1850 publication American Coast Pilot warned that the shoal extended “about one mile S. by W. from the main shore.” It further noted that “some portions of it are bare at low tide, and may all times be seen breaking with a little motion of the sea.” Ships entering either the East or West Passage were also warned about Newton Rock, located a short distance offshore of the Beavertail Lighthouse. Whale Rock was yet another hazard for these sailing vessels; a lighthouse finally erected on the that site in 1882.
In 1853, LV 14 became the first lightship assigned to Brenton Reef. The sloop-rigged, 91-foot wood vessel was equipped with single lantern. Lard fueled its 8 lamps. Its fog signal which consisted of a hand operated horn and bell, was sounded every 15 seconds. Keeping the smelly lard in a flowing condition during the colder months and sounding the fog signals, could not have been a popular duty for the vessel’s crewmen. In addition, the cramped vessel was totally inadequate for the pounding it took from open-ocean waves. On inspection in 1856, it was determined that it would be “best for use on an inside station.” During that year, it was transferred to the more sheltered Cornfield Point, in Long Island Sound, where it served for 16 years. It was then decommissioned and sold at auction in New London for $615.
The sail-schooner rigged lightship LV 11 had served for barely 8 months at Nantucket’s New South Shoal (MA), when it lost anchorage during a winter storm. Having lost its sails, it drifted some 50 miles, before going aground at Montauk Point. Repairs were made at the New York Navy Yard and it was then reassigned to Brenton Reef (1856).
After being stationed at Brenton Reef, history repeated itself. During the height of an October 1865 storm, LV 11 lost anchorage and was driven up on the rock reef. Repairs were made, but 8 years later, it again parted chain. As the steamer Newport was approaching Brenton Reef in a heavy fog, the ship’s lookout spotted two buoys, but where was the lightship? After shutting down their engine, in the distance they could hear the faint sound of LV 11’s fog bell. Once located, the lightship was towed by the steamer and taken to Newport Harbor.
Life had its lighter moments aboard LV 11. A herring gull adopted the lightship and her crew. During the colder months, for over 20 years, the same seabird, nicknamed “Seagull Dick,” would arrive shortly after sunrise. It gladly swooped down to the deck to accept handouts and even some petting from the crewmen. If the bird was out-of-sight, calling its name or whistling would bring it in for another snack. At the end of the day, “Dick” always headed back to shore where it roosted overnight
LV 11 spent 41 years at Brenton Reef before being replaced in 1897 by LV 39, a sail-schooner rig, 119-foot vessel. The new lightship was stationed at the reef until 1935.
In 1905, the battleship Iowa ran into LV 39 as she was heading toward Newport. The dense fog had apparently absorbed much of fog signal’s sound. Luckily, the battleship struck the lightship near its bow, creating some damage 7 feet above the water line. During that same year, two other area lightships suffered mishaps. A fire nearly destroyed Cornfield Point’s Lightship (LV 48) and during a December storm, the crew of South Shoal Relief Lightship LV 58, were rescued just in time before the vessel sank to the bottom.
On July 1, 1909, a heavy fog shrouded the East Passage as the Navy collier (coal carrier) Nero headed out, bound for Provincetown. Running too close to shore, the collier ran up the shallows of Brenton Reef. Impaled on the rocks with serious damage to her hull, her captain was unable to back off his vessel the reef. On the following day, a wrecking tug and two other vessels failed to pull the Nero off the rocks. It would be a full month until the stranded collier was finally removed with the assist of 5 tugs and compressed air. All the ship’s hatches and other deck access areas were closed using steel plates; the underwater openings were left intact. Holes were then made through the hull for the compressed air. The high-pressure air drove out the water, the holes were sealed, cargo was shifted or removed, and the ship was finally refloated.
After decommissioning in 1935, LV 39 was sold and then used for a time as a floating restaurant. In 1975, the vessel V 39 sank at her dock. Refloated, she was taken in tow, bound for Beverly MA. She never made it. The century-old lightship sank in about 180 feet, approximately 4 miles east of Marblehead, MA.
The last lightship to serve Brenton Reef was the 119-foot, 10-inch long, steel hull, LV 102/WAL 525. During the Second World War, 22 lightships were used as examination vessels (about 12 of them were armed), net tenders and guard ships. Nine of the vessels, including Brenton Reef’s lightship, remained on station unarmed, for the duration of the war. LV 102 served at Brenton Reef until September 28, 1962, when she was replaced by a 40 by 10-foot platform, Texas-type steel tower. Because of maintenance expenses, Brenton Reef Light Tower was removed in 1992. It was replaced by a buoy. The tower was transported out to Shinnecock Reef, off Long Island and sunk there as part of an artificial reef. Its structure, which lies in about 82 feet of water, is said to be a great fishing spot.