Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-12-02.
History of the Conimicut Point Lighthouse
The first lighthouse constructed here wasn't really a lighthouse at all, but started out as a day-mark. The round granite tower was built to complement the Nayatt Point Lighthouse to help mark a sand shoal in the Providence River. Many mariners pressed the Lighthouse Board to illuminate it, and they finally did on November 1, 1868, transferring the fourth-order Fresnel lens from the Nayatt Point Lighthouse. With the lighting of the new Conimicut Lighthouse, the Nayatt Point Lighthouse was discontinued.
The mariners rejoiced when the new lighthouse was put into use. But it was no joy for the lighthouse keeper assigned to it. As it was originally only to be a day-mark, there was no keeper's quarters built on-site. With this, the keeper was to reside at the Nayatt Point Lighthouse, and make the dangerous one-mile trek across the river.
To counter the dangerous trek, a five-room keeper's dwelling was built on the landing pier attached to the tower, and was completed on March 3, 1873. At that point, the keeper could live on-site at the lighthouse, and the old Nayatt Point Lighthouse was placed under the care of a custodian. Also in 1873, a more efficient fog bell and striking mechanism was installed at the tower.
The structure would not last. In March of 1875, a large field of ice traversed the river and tore the pier with attached keeper's dwelling from the lighthouse. Keeper Horace Arnold and his son barely escaped by placing a mattress on a large chunk of ice, and floating down the river. They were rescued several hours later by the captain of the tug Reliance, who stated that they looked like they were riding on a magic carpet. Arnold's hands and feet were so badly frozen that it would be several months before he could resume his duties. He would later transfer to the Conanicut Island Lighthouse in 1886.
U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo
After the keeper's dwelling and pier were lost to the ice, the keepers were to again live at the Nayatt Point Lighthouse and row the one mile to the lighthouse to tend to it. At this time, the keeper's quarters at Nayatt Point were enlarged and an assistant keeper was hired. The tower was to be staffed at all times by one keeper.
By 1879, the lighthouse was falling apart. It was leaky when it rained, and very drafty. There was one small stove to provide heat during the cold months. From the following entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1879, it appears that plans were being formulated to build a new lighthouse as well as a new dwelling at Nayatt Point.
138. Conimicut, entrance to Providence River, Rhode Island - The tower at this place is in a very leaky condition and it is otherwise greatly out of repair. The boat-landing is scarcely fit for use. It is therefore, evident that very general renovations and repairs will be necessary to put the station in anything like a proper condition of efficiency. It is recommended that an appropriation of $10,000 be made for erecting, in place of the present sandstone structure, a substantial iron tower, which sum would be sufficient to build a new dwelling for the keepers at Nayat Point, instead of the present dilapidated house used as the residence for the Conimicut light-keepers.
140. Conimicut, entrance to Providence River, Rhode Island - Some necessary repairs were made to the tower and keeper's dwelling on Nayat Point. The buildings should be entirely rebuilt, as the present ones are so dilapidated as to be beyond repair.
By 1882, the old granite tower was razed and a new cast-iron tower was constructed in its place. The design was a duplicate of the Whale Rock Lighthouse in Narragansett Bay and the Latimer Reef Lighthouse in Long Island Sound. At this point, the station at Nayatt Point was placed back into the care of a custodian, until the station was sold at auction in 1890.
By 1898, the characteristic of the light was changed. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1899 contains the following entries:
Conimicut light station, entrance to Providence River, Rhode Island - Characteristic of light changed by inserting a red sector September 10, 1898.
200. Conimicut, Providence River, Rhode Island - A red sector was placed in this light to cover Ohio Ledge, Narragansett Bay.
In 1901, the protection of the island was enhanced by adding 606 tons of riprap around the station. After this, it appears that operation of the station was pretty quiet until 1960 when Hurricane Donna slammed into Rhode Island. The keepers on duty took precautions by lashing things down, including one of the station's boats tied to the roof of the walk around.
When the hurricane hit, one of the keepers tried looking out the galley windows but could see nothing but water. He then went to the lantern to check on the light and realized that the building was swaying in the storm. Keeper Fred Mikkelsen commented that "It would bang you against the wall."
Shortly after the hurricane, the lighthouse became electrified. It was one of the last lighthouses in the United States that was still using the incandescent oil vapor lamp system fueled by kerosene. The lighthouse was automated in 1963. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was replaced at some point in time with a 250mm modern optic.
The lighthouse is still an active aid to navigation; however ownership was transferred to the City of Warwick on September 29, 2004 under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. City officials hope to include public tours to the lighthouse in the future.
There are reports that the lighthouse is haunted by several ghosts. The first ghost that is said to haunt the tower was Keeper Horace Arnold's son that was killed when he had fallen from the light. This is the same keeper and son that had narrowly escaped death in 1875 when the keeper's dwelling was torn from the tower during an ice floe.
The next ghosts that are reported to haunt the tower were Nellie Smith, the wife of keeper Ellsworth Smith whom had become keeper in 1922, and their two year old son. It is reported that the isolation of the tower had become too much for her to bear. Having been refused by Ellsworth to leave the light as lighthouse keeping was a family affair, she gave her two children a poison pill, telling them it was candy. The three of them then went to the bedroom to die.
The five year old son would not die, as he spit the "candy" out having complained of the taste. When Keeper Smith returned from gathering supplies in town, he found his wife and two year old son dead, and his five year old son very ill. He immediately rowed him back to shore to a doctor's office where he would recover. That night, the tower would not be lit.
Past keepers and Coast Guard personnel have reported weird occurrences at the lighthouse. Some have reported hearing a woman crying and a young child laughing, when no one else was around. Others have reported that items have been moved around and tools have sometimes magically appeared near them when they know the tool was left in the boat.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
- Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
- The ghosts of Conimicut Light Steve Brown, Warwick Beacon, October 30, 2012.
Directions: The lighthouse sits in the middle of the Providence River. The best viewing area is from Conimicut Point Park in the City of Warwick.
Access: Tower closed.
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