Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-12-16.
Goat Island, standing a little over a half-mile long by two-hundred yards wide just off-shore from Newport, acted as a breakwall to help protect Newport Harbor. The island derived its name from the function it performed. Many of the early settlers of Newport used the island as a pasture for their goats.
Traffic within Newport's bustling harbor had steadily increased in the late 1700s to early 1800s. However, navigation into the harbor was not without its perils. A shallow reef extended out from the northern tip of the island which many vessels would encounter. It was for this reason that the Lighthouse Board sought to establish a lighthouse to mark the entrance to the harbor.
Original Newport Light, moved to Prudence Island in 1851.
Congress appropriated $2,500 on March 3, 1823 for the establishment of Newport Harbor Lighthouse. The lighthouse was completed near the end of 1823, and was first lighted New Year's Day 1824. The octagonal tower standing twenty feet tall was constructed of stone. On top was an odd shaped lantern which displayed a fixed white light.
In a report dated November 1838, the lighthouse inspector stated that the lantern was "altogether too small for the convenience of the keeper" with it measuring just five feet high by four feet wide. It was also noted in the report that the tower was in poor condition due primarily to faulty construction. Dampness combined with poor ventilation led to frequent condensation on the glass surfaces in the lantern room which would frequently ice up when the temperature dropped.
The report also stated that a breakwater was being constructed over the reef that extended out from the northern end of the island. Originally, the plan was to move the 1823 tower to the end of the breakwater, but due to its poor condition, a new thirty-five foot granite tower was constructed.
Although the new tower was completed in 1838, it would remain dark until after the completion of the breakwater four years later. The original 1823 light was deactivated on the night of December 18, 1842, the same night the new tower was lighted. In 1851, the original 1823 lighthouse was moved to Prudence Island where it still stands today.
Since 1823, illumination was provided by eight lamps utilizing nine-inch parabolic reflectors. However, that changed in 1855 when the lighthouse was upgraded to a fifth-order Fresnel lens which cast its light out in a 270-degree arc.
With the new lighthouse built at the northern end of the breakwater, the keeper still lived back on Goat Island in the original dwelling. This changed in 1864 when a new two-story keeper's dwelling was completed. The dwelling, at the end of the breakwater, was attached to the lighthouse. The old keeper's dwelling was torn down in 1868 and the foundation was filled in.
The United States Navy would take over Fort Wolcott and Goat Island in 1869. Fort Wolcott was transformed into a Naval Torpedo Station. During World War I and II, the station employed over thirteen thousand employees and was said to produce eighty percent of the torpedoes used in the conflict.
Newport Harbor Lighthouse (Courtesy USCG)
September 8, 1869, a hurricane would strike the area. The light station wouldn't fare well. A large section of the slate roof would be torn off. The storm also damaged the iron railing along the breakwater, and the keeper's boat. Repairs were made to the station soon after.
A fog bell with a Steven's striking apparatus was recommended for the station in 1871 at a cost of $800. The apparatus was installed and put to use for the first time on March 1, 1873. A year later, the striking mechanism was upgraded. The fog bell was again upgraded in 1885.
In 1883, a small light operated by the Old Colony Steamboat Company at the south end of Goat Island called the Goat Island Shoal dolphin was relocated. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1883 had the following reports:
Goat Island, off south end of Goat Island, in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island - The dolphin, composed of piles, driven and joined together at the top, from which a light is shown and maintained by one of the steamboat companies, has during the year been changed in location to meet the channel improvements of the harbor in that vicinity.
Goat Island Shoal dolphin, off south end of Goat Island, Newport Harbor, Rhode Island - A clump of five piles, the center one highest, surmounted by a keg. Just before the close of the year this dolphin was taken up and replaced upon a point better suited to the new channel line as the harbor was improved.
By 1904, the Lighthouse Board took over maintenance and operation of the Goat Island Shoal dolphin. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1904 had the following entry:
Goat Island Shoal beacon, Newport Harbor, Rhode Island (a clump of 5 piles) - An incandescent electric light is maintained by the Old Colony Steamboat Company. Hereafter the station will consist of a light and fog bell, and will be maintained by the Light-House Establishment.
November 9, 1921 would start the of the lighthouse when the 155-foot submarine USS N-4 rammed the breakwall in which the keeper's dwelling stood damaging the foundation. Keeper Charles Schoeneman retired in 1922, and the keeper's dwelling was demolished. Electricity was run to the lighthouse, and personnel from the naval torpedo station took over the duties.
The torpedo station closed in 1951 when operations shifted to the newly created Naval Undersea Warfare Center just north of Newport. The lighthouse was automated in 1963.
At some point during the 1960s, Goat Island was sold to a private developer. The area between northern end of the island and the lighthouse was filled in creating land mass. A Sheraton Hotel was constructed on the site of the original 1823 tower, which was later renamed Doubletree Hotel, and then finally Hayatt.
On March 30, 1988, the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Several years later, in 2000, the U.S. Coast Guard leased the lighthouse to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF). The American Lighthouse Foundation set up a local chapter known as the Friends of Newport Harbor Light to restore the aging tower in 2005.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on Goat Island in Newport Harbor. Take Highway 238 to the end, which will put you on Goat Island. The lighthouse sits on the northern end of the island. Rhode Island Bay Cruises offers a 10 lighthouse cruise that passes by the lighthouse as well.
Access: Grounds open. Tower closed.View more Newport Harbor (Goat Island) Lighthouse pictures