Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-11-25.
Ships heading to Newport Harbor, or further north towards Providence or Fall River, Massachusetts using the Eastern Passage of Narragansett Bay will encounter Castle Hill, or the western most point of Newport. Talks of a fog signal to mark the point started back as early as 1869 with Congress approving $10,000 on March 3, 1875.
Alexander Agassiz, a noted industrialist and biologist had owned most of the land around Castle Hill, and just before the Lighthouse Board approved the appropriation for the fog signal, he constructed large summer home nearby. Agassiz refused to sell a plot to the Lighthouse Board fearing that a fog signal would devalue his property. Since the Lighthouse Board could not secure a plot of land, the appropriation was allowed to lapse back to the Treasury.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1878-1880 had the following entries regarding the dispute:
127. Castle Hill, Rhode Island - During the year, under instructions from Light-House Board, steps were taken for reopening negotiations for the purchase of a site on Castle Hill for the establishment of a fog-signal. Letters were addressed to the agents of the land owners at the point selected, asking the price for the site, with right of way, but the replies of both the agent and the owners themselves indicated that their opposition to the establishment of the signal in that vicinity was as great as ever, and that no amicable arrangement could probably be made with them for the acquisition of the requisite site.
127. Castle Hill, Rhode Island - Nothing further has been done in regard to the establishment of this signal since the last annual report submitted from this office. At that date it was not deemed probable any arrangement could be made with the land-owners at Castle Hill for securing a proper site, and the requisite right of way for the signal.
For the next several years, it appears that no progress was made given by the following entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1881:
127. Castle Hill, entrance to Newport Harbor, Rhode Island - Nothing done at this point toward establishing the signal.
Given that the location was ideal for guiding ships through the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, the Lighthouse Board persisted in its attempt to secure a plot of land. On August 4, 1886, Congress again appropriated $10,000, this time for a lighthouse and fog signal provided a site could be obtained "without expense to the Government".
On June 10, 1887, Alexander Agassiz deeded a portion of his land to the government for $1. At this point, the Lighthouse Board began to survey the site as evidenced from this passage in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1887:
134. Castle Hill, entrance to Newport Harbor, Rhode Island - The site of the proposed light and fog-signal was surveyed and approved, and plans and specifications for the building were prepared. Proposals for doing the work will be advertised for at an early day.
After the survey was conducted, an additional problem was uncovered. When Mr. Agassiz deeded the plot of land he did not grant a right-of-way across his property. Given the lighthouse site was on a steep rock face, it was inaccessible by water, and the accepted contract by William Wilbor made his bid contingent upon being permitted to use "the most accessible route in the vicinity of the proposed site."
Mr. Agassiz had continually refused to allow right-of-way access across his property, and sent the following in a letter to the engineer of the Third Lighthouse District:
"It is impossible for me to make any further concessions in the matter of the light house. What with one thing and another I stand an excellent show of having my place ruined and nobody to foot the bill. I must protect myself of all hazards. I have signed a deed to the U.S. on the only terms which I will agree to and if the Government cannot carry out its part of the programme I shall take the necessary steps to re-enter the land."
In November of 1887, the Lighthouse Board had sent the engineer of the Third Lighthouse District to Newport to enter into discussions with Mr. Agassiz to see if the two sides could come to an agreement. At this point, if an agreement could not be attained, the government was willing to start condemnation proceedings against Mr. Agassiz.
While awaiting Mr. Agassiz's response to the right-of-way request, The Lighthouse Board determined that the amount appropriated for the construction of a lighthouse and fog signal was inadequate and that additional funds would be needed. On March 30, 1888, an additional appropriation of $5,000 was made.
The condemnation proceedings wouldn't be necessary. On May 20, 1888, Mr. Agassiz relented and deeded 1.98 acres of land to the United States "without condition and without expense to the Government."
Castle Hill Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
Noted architect H. H. Richardson whose works include the Trinity Church in Boston, and the New York State Asylum in Buffalo, was rumored to have made an early drawing of the Castle Hill Lighthouse. His sketch for the lighthouse included an attached living quarters. However, it is H. Langford Warren's initials that appear on reduced sketches where there is no attached living quarters which more closely resembles the lighthouse as it was built. The keeper's residence was built further up on shore a short distance from Castle Hill Cove.
The tower which stood thirty-four foot tall was constructed of granite. Frank W. Parmele was transferred from the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse to serve as keeper. He exhibited the station's flashing red light from a fifth order Fresnel lens for the first time on the night of May 1, 1890 which was visible for ten nautical miles.
The station's triple-blow fog bell would only last seventeen months before being removed at Mr. Agassiz's request as evidenced in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1892:
116. Castle Hill, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island - A stanchion was fitted under the lantern deck. The fog bell was discontinued November 30, 1891 and the bell and apparatus were removed. Various repairs were made.
The 1,286-pound fog bell would be reinstalled in 1896, only to be replaced by a more efficient 2,000-pound bell shortly after. Again, Mr. Agassiz would file a complaint with the Lighthouse Board, this time; the board would react by placing screen near the bell to deaden the sound in his direction.
Shortly thereafter in 1899, the upper half of the tower was painted white to serve as a daymark. The lighthouse still retains this color scheme today.
Like most of the other lighthouses in the area, such as Whale Rock and Beavertail, it too was affected by the Great Hurricane of 1938. The tower withstood the pounding waves, but the keeper's residence was destroyed.
The Coast Guard built a new station further east of the original keeper's residence in 1941. The keeper would live at that location and have a further hike to the lighthouse each night. This arrangement would last until the lighthouse was automated in 1957. At that time, the fifth order Fresnel lens was replaced with a 300-mm plastic optic.
On June 26, 1989, the Greek tanker World Prodigy ran aground near Brenton Reef, just south of the Castle Hill Lighthouse spilling 290,000 gallons of number two fuel oil into the bay killing marine life and closing beaches. This event received national attention due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska just a few months prior.
This wouldn't be the last shipwreck near the lighthouse. On February 10, 2005, the Portuguese freighter Mantenha ran aground on the rocks near the lighthouse while on its way to Fall River, Massachusetts. The vessel sustained some damage, but never spilled any fuel. A tug freed the vessel several hours later.
Directions: While in Newport, follow Bellevue Ave. south to the end. Make a right onto Coggashall Ave and follow that to Ocean Ave. Take Ocean Ave 3.8 miles to Castle Hill Road. Make a left onto Castle Hill Road. Follow this to the end.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The grounds are open, tower closed.View more Castle Hill Lighthouse pictures