Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-04-14.
The Beavertail Lighthouse was the third lighthouse to be built in Colonial America just behind the Boston Harbor (Little Brewster) and the Brant Point Lighthouses in Massachusetts. The first formal request for a lighthouse occurred in 1712 as was documented in Newport town meeting minutes. Settlers determined the need for a light to guide ships from the open ocean into either Newport Harbor or Narragansett Bay.
The request may have been noted in 1712; however, there is evidence that an informal beacon may have been in place as early as 1705. It would be 1731 before a plan was put in place to fund the lighthouse, which included a tax levy on all ship's cargo that passed through the port of Newport. The tax was 10 shillings per ton if coming from a foreign port, or 18 shillings per ton if coming from a local port.
In 1738, the General Assembly of the Colony of Rhode Island approved the construction of a lighthouse. However, the construction of the lighthouse would be delayed by a decade or more due to war between England and Spain. It was designed by architect Peter Harrison, who is also known for the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. When completed in 1749, the wooden tower was 58-foot tall, and stood atop a 12 foot base giving it a focal plane of 70 feet. Abel Franklin was assigned as the first keeper.
The tower was originally thought to be round, but was later discovered in 2008 to be octagonal by Soil Sight, LLC during the process of underground radar imaging when trying to determine the best way to preserve the remains of the old tower. The tower wasn't in use long before it burned to the ground on July 23, 1753.
In an effort to save time and money, the same foundation was employed for the replacement tower in 1754. Again, architect Peter Harrison was in charge of the design. This time, the tower was constructed of rubble stone which was sourced from Goat Island in Newport Harbor. While the tower was being constructed, Keeper Abel Franklin held his post, using a lantern to warn ships.
There was growing discontent between the new colonies and the British Empire. Starting in 1772, the British Revenue Cutter Gaspee ran aground near Warwick while chasing a sloop that was suspected of smuggling. On the night of June 9, Rhode Island patriots rowed out to the ship and attacked it. In the skirmish, a British Naval Captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston was severely wounded and the rest of the ship's crew was taken prisoner. Once all were off the ship, it was set afire.
Beavertail Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
The next act occurred on May 4, 1776 when the Rhode Island General Assembly declared its independence from the British throne. It would be several more months before the Second Continental Congress would approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
By 1779, the American and French forces were gaining the upper-hand in the battle for Newport. As the British forces were retreating, they removed the equipment from the Beavertail Lighthouse and set it afire. The tower would sit dark for the rest of the Revolutionary War. It was repaired and relit in 1783. This is the same year that the United States Congress took control of the nation's twelve lighthouses. However, the General Assembly of Rhode Island held out until 1793 before agreeing to transfer the Beavertail Lighthouse to the Federal Government.
Given the location tower's placement, it was routinely hit with rogue waves. Such was the case on September 23, 1815 when a hurricane struck off the Atlantic. The keeper, Philip Caswell, moved his family to a nearby neighbor's house for safety. He later returned to his post to find the keeper's dwelling largely destroyed and every pane of glass in the lighthouse broken. The same hurricane would destroy the Point Judith Lighthouse some seven miles to the south. A new larger keeper's dwelling was constructed in 1816.
Life at the lighthouse was steady for a while until March of 1829 when a 600-pound fog bell was installed. It utilized a clockwork system to automate the striking of the bell, but still had to be wound regularly by the keeper. Although the sound from the crashing surf made it nearly impossible to hear, it was in use for four years.
The next experimental fog horn was installed in 1851. This system, which was invented by Celadon Daboll of New London, Connecticut, utilized compressed air to power the signal. The unusual part was that the compressed air was generated by a horse walking on a revolving walker. The system was deemed effective with reports of people hearing the signal as far away as Newport. The system was only used for two years. Using the horse to generate compressed air was deemed impractical for long term use.
A Lighthouse Board report of 1851 showed the tower in poor condition. Congress set aside $14,500 in 1854 to replace the one hundred year old tower. It would be another two years before a new granite tower standing 45 feet tall and outfitted with a third order Fresnel lens was constructed. At the same time, a new keeper's dwelling was also constructed. The light was lit for the first time on the night of October 20, 1856. A few days later the old keeper's dwelling and the 1754 tower were demolished leaving only the tower's foundation. A new main keeper's residence was built in 1859.
The third order Fresnel lens was replaced with a smaller fourth order Fresnel lens on June 26, 1899 and on August 15, 1899 the upper half of the tower was painted white to serve as a day marker. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1899 had the following entries:
178. Beavertail, entrance to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. - Two 13-horsepower oil engines for the fog-signal were received and will be installed soon. The characteristic of the light was changed from third order fixed white to fourth-order flashing white, showing a group of 8 flashes succeeding one another at intervals of 2 seconds, followed by a dark interval of 15 seconds. Various repairs were made.
Beavertail light station Narragansett Bay Rhode Island - Color of tower changed August 15 1899.
Carl Chellis was appointed keeper on January 1, 1938 upon the retirement of George T. Manders. Less than ten months later, the worst hurricane to ever hit the northeast would strike on September 21, 1938. 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 hurricane.
Prior to the storm, the tides were already unusually high due to the full moon and the autumnal equinox. The storm would bring eighteen to twenty-five feet tides and when the storm surge approached the "funnel-like" constriction of Narragansett Bay, it would deposit nearly sixteen feet of water in parts of downtown Providence.
These waves would damage every building at the Beavertail light station. Many people would lose their lives to the storm including Keeper Chellis' daughter. The storm would also uncover the original foundation of the 1749 lighthouse. Less than a mile away, keeper Walter Eberle would lose his life when the Whale Rock Lighthouse was swept into the sea. His body would never be found.
The lighthouse was automated in 1972. Shortly after that, the fourth order Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern optic. In 1983, the Rhode Island Parks Association started restoring the assistant keeper's house. In 1989, the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association would open the assistant keeper's house as a museum. In 1991, the fourth order Fresnel lens was removed from the tower. It is now on display in the museum.
Directions: From Jamestown, RI, follow Southwest Ave south to Beavertail Road. Follow Beavertail Road south for 3.1 miles. From here, you will contine south on Old Shore Road to the lighthouse.
More information is available at: www.beavertaillight.org
Access: Grounds open. Tower closed.View more Beavertail Lighthouse pictures