Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-01-14.
Rose Island sits in the middle of the East Passage of Narragansett Bay. The island was used during the American Revolution to house a fortification and largely for the defense of Narragansett Bay and Newport. Later, construction of Fort Hamilton took place from 1798-1801, but was never completed or armed.
With the increasing shipping traffic in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay and the area around Newport in the mid-1800s, Rose Island seemed the ideal place to construct a lighthouse and on July 20, 1868, Congress appropriated $7,500 for completion of the task. Crews selected what was once a circular bastion of Fort Hamilton on the southwest corner of the island to place the lighthouse.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1868 had the following entry:
Rose Island - By act of Congress approved July 20, 1868, the sum of $7,500 was appropriated for the establishment of the light on the south end of the island. The work of constructing the requisite buildings will be commenced early in the ensuing spring.
By late 1869, construction of the lighthouse was mostly complete. The wooden keeper's dwelling featured a mansard roof with an integrated octagonal tower. The tower stood thirty-five feet tall on the western end of the structure, which was nearly identical in style to the Pomham Rocks Lighthouse. The lantern was outfitted with a sixth-order Fresnel lens displaying a fixed red light. Keeper John Bailey Cozzens, appointed on November 25, 1869, first established the light on the night of January 20, 1870.
The station was upgraded in 1885 to employ a fog bell. A tower to house the bell was constructed and outfitted with a bell and striking mechanism. The signature assigned to the Rose Island Lighthouse was a double blow every fifteen seconds.
Rose Island Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
The station would be upgraded over the years. In 1901, a brick oil house was constructed on the island. And in 1912, the fog bell was removed in favor of a more modern fog signal. A fog signal building was constructed to house a Reed Horn and the station was assigned an assistant keeper to handle the additional duties.
Although the lighthouse was employed, several maritime accidents have happened in and around the station. In 1885, the steamer Fall River ran aground on Spindle Rock on Rose Island. In 1891, the steamer Conanicut ran aground in the same location. Several years later in 1894, the steamer Plymouth ran aground.
The Plymouth was under control of Captain Elisha Davis who was nicknamed "Fog Eater" for his fearless ability to navigate in zero visibility. The Plymouth left Fall River, Massachusetts at 8pm carrying 600 passengers and freight on its way to New York. During the voyage, the steamer came into dense fog, and ran aground on the southern shore of Rose Island. Captain Davis said that he mistook the Rose Island fog bell for that of the wharf at Fort Adams, and started his turn too early which led to running aground.
The steamer Conanicut arrived at the stricken vessel at 11:30pm and moored alongside. Passengers were transferred off and taken to Newport arriving at the Fall River Line dock at 12:55am. They were then loaded on a train bound for New York, which left at 1:15am.
Several weeks later, in July of 1894, the Conanicut would be involved in a collision with a smaller steamer Anawan in the same vicinity of Spindle Rock. The smaller Anawan would take the bulk of the damage.
Probably the largest maritime accident in the area around Rose Island Lighthouse was the collision of the tanker S.E. Graham and the Gulfoil. In dense fog, the two ships collided in Narragansett Bay off Newport on the morning of August 7, 1958. The S.E. Graham was carrying 900,000 gallons of gasoline while the Gulfoil was had an empty cargo tank which still contained gas fumes. The result was a massive explosion.
The two vessels burned for close to a day before finally being extinguished by firefighters from the United States Navy. Fifteen crew members from the Gulfoil perished in the collision. Both ships were declared a total loss, and sold for salvage.
Construction of the Newport Bridge started in 1966, and was competed in 1969. The bridge served as a better aid to navigation than the lighthouse, and in 1971, the tower was deactivated. For a short time, the light station was leased to the University of Rhode Island for use as a marine research facility. The university never actually used the facility, and returned it to the federal government in dilapidated condition in the 1980s.
The Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation was started in 1984 to restore and preserve the lighthouse. By 1990, the lighthouse was restored to the 1912 time period. Interior restoration included new wiring, plumbing, plaster walls, and in-floor radiant heat. The foundation received the final permit on August 22, 1990 to open the lighthouse to visitors.
The station was relit as a private aid to navigation on August 7, 1993. Electricity is provided chiefly by alternative power. This includes a battery bank to store the power generated by the windmill. The foundation purchased the rest of the island to preserve it as a wildlife refuge in June of 1999.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on Rose Island in Narragansett Bay. It is best viewed from the water. Rhode Island Bay Cruises offers a 10 lighthouse cruise that passes by the lighthouse.
Access: The Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation provides access to the lighthouse. Visitors are allowed to stay overnight on the first floor, or you can act as a keeper, and stay for a week. You can reserve your stay at their website.View more Rose Island Lighthouse pictures