Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-12-23.
For vessels heading northward to Providence, Rhode Island, the west passage of Narragansett Bay is the most direct route. However, this route is not without peril. In dense fog, many vessels would lose their bearing and either run into Dutch Island or the opposite shore.
As early as 1892, the Lighthouse Board had recognized this hazard, and recommended establishing a lighthouse as evidenced in this entry of the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1892:
Plum Beach, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island - The great Sound steamers plying between Providence, R.I., and New York, N.Y., find navigation during fog quite hazardous. In avoiding Dutch Island there is extreme danger of grounding on Plum Beach, as is shown by the recent grounding of the steamer Pequot. It is estimated that a proper light and fog signal can be established on Plum Beach for not exceeding $60,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
Apparently the recommendation wasn't acted upon as the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1893 and 1894 had the same entries. On March 2, 1895, an appropriation of $20,000 was made for the Plum Beach Lighthouse and fog signal. The entry states that the site was selected, surveyed, and a preliminary plan was made. The entry goes on to recommend the balance of the estimate, $40,000 be released.
The additional appropriation of $40,000 was made on June 11, 1896. Work on the caisson was started using the "pneumatic caisson" method of construction on July 13, and completed on August 19, 1896. Test borings would show that the foundation had not settled on bedrock, but rather on soft sand, which would leave the foundation unstable. Additional work would be required to get the caisson to a solid substrate.
To get the caisson to settle on bedrock, it had to be forced down an additional seven feet. This left the tower's foundation barely above the high water mark for Narragansett Bay; therefore it would need to be augmented, however, there was no money left in the budget for this work. The foundation was covered over with wood, and a temporary red light was placed on it on February 1, 1897. To protect the foundation, 1,500 tons of riprap was placed on February 22, 1897.
An estimated $9,000 would be needed to complete the tower, which wouldn't be forthcoming. In the interim, a 1,028-pound fog bell operated by striking machinery was placed on the wooden platform on June 1, 1897. Its characteristic was a double blow every thirty seconds. Repairs would see it discontinued from March 29 to April 30, 1898. The temporary fog bell was discontinued on June 30, 1898 to allow for the start of construction.
Plum Beach Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
An additional appropriation of $9,000 was made on July 1, 1898. Later that year, the contractor H. Toomey, wrote to the Lighthouse Board regarding the weather at Plum Point. His construction schooner, while anchored, was blown down the West Passage of Narragansett Bay. It would be nearly four miles before the anchor was caught on a submerged cable near Beavertail. If the anchor hadn't fouled on the cable, the crew most likely would have been swept out into the Atlantic.In his letter asking for a ninety day construction delay, H. Toomey wrote, "Plum beach, Narragansett Bay is the stormiest place we ever worked. It is either raining or blowing half of the time." The Lighthouse Board would grant him the delay, and work would resume later that spring.
When work resumed in the spring of 1899, the necessary seventh course of cylinder plates and the erection of the superstructure was completed on May 30, 1899. The tower received its signature color scheme of black cylinder on the bottom, the superstructure consisting of white on bottom, brown on top, and capped off by a black lantern room.
The tower was completed, however, before a Fresnel lens and fog signal could be installed, funds were again depleted. The following was entered in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1899:
The amount originally appropriated for the establishment of this station was insufficient to equip it with a lens apparatus and fog-signal. A temporary lens apparatus has been installed, which was on hand at the depot, and should be replaced. It is estimated that such an apparatus would cost $857, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
It is also estimated that a fog-signal could be established at a cost of $1,343, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
Since funds were scarce, a temporary fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed into the lantern room. The temporary fog bell that was discontinued the previous June was also reinstalled. Both were put into service on July 1, 1899.
The winter of 1918 was particularly rough. Narragansett Bay froze enough that automobiles and carriages were able to cross. When the ice broke up and started to shift, it damaged the iron work. Several cracks around the circumference of the tower developed, as well as several vertical cracks that descended below the water's surface. The repairs proved costly, and were put off until 1922. To provide additional protection, 9,000 tons of riprap were placed around the foundation.
The Great Hurricane of 1938 would start as a category 5 storm in the open Atlantic. But by the time it made landfall in the Northeast, it would be downgraded to a category 3 with gusts reaching 121-mph. Like many of the other lighthouses Narragansett Bay such as the Beavertail, Sakonnet, and Whale Rock, the Plum Beach Lighthouse took a direct hit.
The substitute keeper, Edwin S. Babcock, saw the waves starting to pick up on the afternoon of September 21 while visiting Keeper Ganze. In an attempt to make it to shore to visit with family, he left in the station's row boat. Shortly after leaving, he realized that it was too late, and returned to the lighthouse.
As the storm intensified, waves crashed against the tower breaking open doors and washing away the station's furniture. The two keepers retreated to higher levels within the tower. They finally ended up at the lantern where they lashed themselves to the pipe containing the weights of the clockwork for rotating the lens. There they stayed for hours.
The two keepers surveyed the damage when the storm passed. The cracks from 1918 re-opened, both the landing deck and boat were gone, and the gallery suffered extensive damage. Their neighbor to the south, the Whale Rock Lighthouse, didn't fare as well. It was gone. Repairs were later made.
The lighthouse became redundant when the Jamestown Bridge opened for traffic in 1940. The lighthouse was extinguished in January of 1941. The Coast Guard put the lighthouse up for auction with the stipulation that the winning bidder would have to remove the tower. No bids were placed, and the tower was soon abandoned. Year after year of neglect left the tower in poor condition, missing doors, broken windows, rusted iron, and every surface was covered with guano.
Custody of the tower was in dispute. The Coast Guard claimed that the state of Rhode Island was the owner through eminent domain. The state denied the claim.
In 1973, the Cannon Paint Company of Philadelphia was employed to paint the Jamestown Bridge. The company took an employee named James Osborn off the job and requested that he paint the nearby tower. The worker contracted histoplamosis, and ended up with permanent blurred vision. He sued the state of Rhode Island in 1984 for $500,000.
By 1988, a group from Massachusetts attempted to buy the lighthouse, with plans to move it to the state and turn it into a museum. A local woman, Shirley Silva, formed the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse to keep the tower where it stood. Neither group could further its agenda due to lack of clear ownership.
Mr. Osborn's case would be in the court system for nearly fifteen years. Neither the state nor the Coast Guard wanted to claim ownership of the derelict tower due to the lawsuit. The Superior Court, in 1998, finally ruled that the state owned of the tower, and awarded the employee $42,000.
By determining a clear owner of the structure, this court ruling paved the way for the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse to acquire it. In 1999, the group received $500,000 under the Transportation Act for the 21st Century and ownership of the aging structure.
In August of 2000, estimates for a complete restoration (interior and exterior) came to nearly one million dollars according to the Newport Collaborative Architects. The Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse decided to move forward with the exterior restoration, and awarded a contract to Abcore Restoration Company which started work in June of 2003.
The restoration started with the removal of fifty-two tons of guano. After that, new doors and windows were installed, rust was removed, and the new paint was applied to the exterior. In December of 2003, the Coast Guard reinstalled a light in the tower, returning it to an active aid to navigation.
In October of 2009, The Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse partnered with the state of Rhode Island to begin selling Plum Beach Lighthouse license plates. The group had to sell a minimum of 900 plates before the state would commit to the project, which the group easily surpassed.
The funds from the sale of the plates were used for repainting the tower during the summer of 2010. Any additional funds received from the sale of the plates will be placed into a fund for future maintenance, and possibly the interior restoration.
Directions: The lighthouse is best viewed from the water. Rhode Island Bay Cruises offers a 10 lighthouse cruise that passes by the lighthouse.
Access: No access. Tower closed.View more Plum Beach Lighthouse pictures