What state is just 48 miles long and 37 miles wide yet has over 400 miles of coastline? Often called the Ocean State, its coast was host to Colonial America’s third lighthouse. Beautifully located on
a rocky shore whose overall shape was said to resemble the tail of a small aquatic mammal, the site looked out over a glimmering sea.
The island, Conanicut (=Jamestown), on which the lighthouse was built, was purchased from the Narraganset Indians in 1657. At first, the colony was mainly agricultural, but by the early 1700’s, it developed into a vibrant maritime economy. The Colony’s major harbor, Newport had a population of about 2,200. Approximately one in four of males residing there were said to look out to the sea for their livelihood. The Colony was the center for the export of lumber, maize, tobacco and rum, the latter which was part of the notorious trade triangle. Ships loaded with barrels of rum, sailed to Africa where they took on slaves bound for the West Indies. From there, molasses were transported back to the Colony for processing into rum.
As early as 1738, the Colony’s General Assembly recognized the need for a “lighthouse on Beaver Tail.” Several wrecks had already occurred just off the island. But it would be another 11 years until a 68-foot tall wood lighthouse was erected on the site. Abel Franklin, who had long voiced the need for such a structure, was appointed the first keeper of the Newport Lighthouse, later called Beavertail Lighthouse. To help pay for the structure, its maintenance and operation, the Colony followed the example of the Massachusetts Colony, levying dues on ships entering its port.
Just four years after its establishment, the tower caught fire and burned to the ground. The following year, it was replaced by a 58-foot brick and stone tower. While the site was without a lighthouse, it is said that keeper Franklin managed to continue displaying some sort of a navigational light.
In October of 1779, the British forces were driven out of the Colony by French and Patriot forces. In their retreat, the Redcoats carried away most of the lighthouse’s equipment and then set fire to the brick tower. Though badly damaged, the structure was restored and continued to operate until 1854. From about 1842 until rebuilt in 1856, the station’s light source consisted of 15 lamps with 15-inch reflectors. Its fog signal consisted of a hand-rung fog bell, the most effective signal of that time. Earlier in 1719, cannon fire as a fog signal had been attempted at Boston’s lighthouse. However, it was quickly abandoned because it was too difficult to determine the direction of the sound.
Built close to shore, the keeper’s original 504 square-foot house was anything but comfortable. Most storm waves breaking on the rocks invariably doused the structure. During one severe storm, the keeper and his family abandoned their home, fearing that the water was about to carry away their residence. During the Great September Gale of 1815, the “first major hurricane to strike New England in 180 years,” the seas demolished the keepers' house and shattered twenty of the lighthouse’s glass panes. A rebuilt keeper’s dwelling was completed during the following year.
One hundred and twenty years later, that season’s September hurricane toppled and carried away much of the nearby Whale Rock Lighthouse, along with the life of its assistant keeper, Walter Eberle. The storm surge also struck a school bus transporting six children to their Jamestown Island residences. Aboard the bus were Beavertail’s keeper’s son and daughter. Tragically, there were only two survivors; the keeper’s son and the bus driver.
Though located on an idealistic site with a magnificent ocean panorama, there was a time when life there was not as pleasant. During the early 1900’s, artillery men at nearby Fort Adams practiced their gunnery by firing dummy shells over the light station, aiming for the open water. The noise by itself was bad enough, but In December 1908, a 5-inch shell narrowly missed the tower, one landed into the yard next to the dwelling and another crashed into its foundation. The War Department repaired the damage and later assured the Light House Board that it would never happen again.
The granite tower lighthouse and its two-story brick dwelling that stands today were erected in 1856. Following the tower’s completion, its light source was changed to a third-order Fresnel lens. Invented in 1822 by a French physicist, the lens uses a concentric ring of glass prisms, focusing the light into a narrow beam. The optic was replaced with a fourth-order Fresnel in 1917. The Coast Guard then automated the light source in 1972 and updated it in 1991 with a DCB 24 flashing white light.
Relatively easy site access and adequate space surrounding Beavertail Lighthouse, allowed it to be used as a testing site for some advances in fog signal equipment. In 1851, Connecticut inventor Celadon Daboll created a fog trumpet that incorporated a vibrating reed. It included a hand operated air compressor and a storage tank. To assure a sufficient volume of air for the fog trumpet, Daboll also experimented at Beavertail with a horse-powered compressor. The nag walked in circles around a post that turned the compressor. One can only imagine that the horse may have been more than happy, on a clear day, to take the keeper to town instead of its usual duties! Over the years, the lighthouse was host to a list of other fog signals. And today, the station continues to operate as a navigational aid. In reduced visibility, its automated horn sounds a two second blast, every 30 seconds. The light from its lantern is visible out to 15 miles.
Aided by private and state funds, Beavertail Lighthouses underwent some major renovations in 2009. A small museum was set up in the assistant keeper’s residence and between 2009 and 2012, the exhibitions were expanded into the keeper’s house, oil house and the base of the lighthouse tower. Open from Memorial Day through mid-October, Rhode Island’s shoreline treasure is popular for its history, its breathtaking seascape, hiking trails, great saltwater fishing and Scuba diving which often takes place from the nearby shores of Fort Wetherill. For more information, go to the museum’s website: https://www.beavertaillighthouse.com/.