Historic Structures

Beavertail Lighthouse, Jamestown Rhode Island

Date added: November 13, 2022 Categories: Rhode Island Lighthouse

Beavertail Light is one of the oldest lighthouse sites in America. The successive lighthouses at Beavertail, set at a vital location, have helped ensure the safe transportation of passengers and goods in the Atlantic and Narragansett Bay for over 200 years. As the site of early experiments with gas illumination and fog signaling equipment, Beavertail has earned a place in the annals of science and invention.

Early Rhode Island settlers quickly grasped the strategic value of Beavertail Point. The colonial records of Jamestown refer to the existence of a watch-house at Beavertail in 1705, while orders for the building of a beacon and maintenance of a regular watch at Beavertail are recorded in an entry dated 9 June 1712. The purpose of all this vigilance was probably strictly military, to warn of the approach of hostile foreign ships, but it is possible that the beacon was sometimes used to help guide merchant vessels into Narragansett Bay. in 1738 the General Assembly of Rhode Island authorized the construction of a lighthouse at Beavertail, but nothing was done until 1749, when a 58-foot wooden tower was erected under the direction of Peter Harrison of Newport, one of America's most eminent Colonial architects. This lighthouse was the third one to be established in America. It burned down in 1753, whereupon Harrison supervised the construction of a 64-foot fieldstone tower which was completed in 1755. This structure was burned by British troops when the occupying forces evacuated Newport in 1779. The lighthouse was repaired in 1783-84 and was used until 1856 when the present tower and keeper's house were completed. By that time the old tower was extremely decrepit and it was quickly torn down. The second Beavertail Light was one of the most important lighthouses on the Atlantic coast, for it marked the entrance to the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, which led in turn to Newport Harbor, one of colonial America's largest and busiest ports. As a result, mariners of the period often referred to it as "Newport Light." The present lighthouse still serves as a major aid to coastal navigators.

Architecturally, the 1856 light tower is unique. The granite work is unlike the masonry of any other lighthouse in New England. The tower is also a prominent landmark, familiar to generations of Rhode Islanders and to out-of-state tourists. It is an important element in the visual fabric of lower Narragansett Bay, a cultural artifact with great emotional significance for many local residents.

The 18th-century lighthouse was the site of an early experiment to improve lighthouse operations. During the year 1817-18 David Melville of Newport, a pioneer in the use of gas for residential and street lighting, fitted the lantern at Beavertail with a lamp which burned a gas he manufactured by heating tar and rosin over a coal fire. The gas lamp burned much brighter than the oil one, with the light reportedly visible 25 miles away. This experiment probably constituted the first use of gas as a lighthouse illuminant, and though Melville was pleased with the results, the government had doubts about the cost and reliability of using gas, and the lantern was refitted with an oil lamp at the conclusion of the trial period.

Beavertail Light was also closely associated with the development of new types of fog signals. In 1851 a fog whistle and a fog trumpet invented by C. A. Daboll were installed at Beavertail on an experimental basis. The new apparatus was much more efficient than the fog bells which had been used up until that time, and after the trial period, the whistle and trumpet were left in place. These instruments were operated with compressed air produced by a horse-driven air pump; hot air engines soon replaced the horse as power sources for the equipment. Six years later, a steam whistle was installed and tested at the new lighthouse. It did not work as well as the compressed air Signals and was replaced by a reed trumpet about 1866. An improved version of the steam whistle was erected at Beavertail in 1881 and proved to be very successful. In both cases (the air whistle/air trumpet and the steam whistle) the installations at Beavertail were the first of their type in the United States.

The exposed rock outcroppings here have many folds, intrusions, and crystal formations that can be easily studied by geologists. The high algal population of the water makes Beavertail a favorite outdoor laboratory for marine-life classes. The area is also noteworthy as a nesting spot for migratory birds, and as a site where large numbers of monarch butterflies gather before they fly south.

Lighthouse Description

Beavertail Light is located at Beavertail Point, a rocky, windswept promontory at the southern tip of Conanicut Island which divides the East and West passages of Narragansett Bay. It is a strategic position that has been the site of beacons and lighthouses since the early eighteenth century. The site encompasses about four acres and is bounded on the north by Fort Burnside, a U.S. Navy reservation.

A public access road runs around the perimeter of the property and connects to Beavertail Road, leading from the point up Beaver Neck toward the town center about three miles away. The road is lined for part of its length by a low stone wall on the inland side, while its southern portion is bounded by a rail fence. The ground is covered with grass, but exposure to strong on-shore winds has prevented the growth of any shrubs or trees.

Five buildings and the remains of a sixth stand on the property. Most prominent is the lighthouse tower, built-in 1856. It is a ten-foot-square, straight-sided stone structure surmounted by an iron lantern room and lantern with circular galleries, set about 100 feet back from a steep slope that falls to the island's rocky shoreline. The tower walls are of rock-faced grey granite blocks approximately twelve inches high and eighteen inches tall and of two different lengths (eight feet and ten feet). The blocks are laid up with the longer ones. on opposite sides of the tower, overlapping the end of the shorter ones. The orientation of the blocks is reversed in adjacent rows and is repeated in alternate rows, creating a quoined effect at the corners. The tower is now unpainted, as it was originally, but the upper half was painted white in 1900 as a distinguishing feature, and it remained that way until a few years ago. There are three window openings in the walls: one at ground level on the west side, one at the top on the north side, and one about halfway up the south side. The original 6 over 6 sashes have been removed and the openings have been filled up with concrete blocks. The interior of the tower is cylindrical in form, with an iron spiral staircase leading up to the lantern room. The lantern room and lantern are decagonal in plan, with the latter situated above the former and reached by a short ladder. The beacon here was originally a fixed white light produced by an oil lamp. In 1899 it was converted to a flashing white light. An electric lamp was installed in 1931. Today the lantern is glazed with green convex plexiglass panes, and the beacon is a flashing green light with a range of seventeen miles produced by a 45,000-candlepower electric lamp. The focal plane of the lantern is 45 feet above the ground and 68 feet above mean sea level.

To the north of the lighthouse tower is a one-story, gable-roofed ell of stuccoed brick about thirteen feet square. It connects the tower to the keeper's house and was originally used to store lamp oil. The keeper's house, to the north of the oil room, was also built in 1856. It is a two-story, hip-roofed structure measuring approximately 25 feet by 31 feet, with a one-story, gable-roofed, 16 by 17-foot ell on the west side. A small, shed-roofed wooden addition stands on the south side of this ell adjacent to the keeper's house, and a two-story, hip-roofed assistant keeper's house measuring about 25 by 31 feet is attached to the west side of the ell. The assistant's house was built in 1898. The long axes of the dwellings are perpendicular to one another, with that of the keeper's house running east-west.

Both dwellings are built of brick, now stuccoed over and painted white, with granite door and window sills, painted grey. They have been unoccupied since the light was automated in 1972, and all the door and window openings are boarded up.

About twenty feet east of the tower and oil room stands the old Signal house. It is a one-story, gable-on-hip-roofed structure built in the early twentieth century, measuring approximately 22 by 26 feet, with the long axis running east-west. The signal house has a concrete foundation and yellow brick walls which are stuccoed over and painted white. On the south side, the wall breaks through the eaves at the center to form a little gabled dormer containing two blocked-up circular openings from which fog horns once projected. The fog horns have been removed from the signal house and a new horn has been set up about fifty feet to the south (across the access road) on a concrete-filled circular fieldstone foundation approximately 24 feet in diameter. This foundation is the base of the second Beavertail Light, built in 1755, burned by the British in 1779, rebuilt in 1783-84, and demolished after the present lighthouse was completed in 1856-57. Buried for many years, the foundation was uncovered by tidal action during the hurricane of 1938. A slate plaque with a commemorative inscription carved by John Howard Benson (a prominent contemporary American stonecutter associated with Newport's John Stevens Shop, a stonecutting firm dating from the early 18th century) is set in a fieldstone marker on the north side of the foundation.

A one-story, hip-roofed garage stands about 52 feet north of the signal house. Built in the mid-twentieth century, it has concrete block walls and measures about 22 by 24 feet, with the longer axis running north-south. The area between the signal house and the garage is paved with asphalt and is connected to the access road by a short driveway.

The last two structures on the property are a one-story, gable-roofed shed about twenty feet west of the garage and a one-story, flat-roofed shed about 92 feet north of the garage. The former is built of concrete block and measures approximately 12 by 20 feet, while the latter has brick walls and measures approximately 13 by 17 feet. Both are painted white and are set with their long axes running north-south.

Beavertail Lighthouse, Jamestown Rhode Island Facing northwest, showing left to right, assistant keepers house, light tower, keepers house, and old signal house (1976)
Facing northwest, showing left to right, assistant keepers house, light tower, keepers house, and old signal house (1976)

Beavertail Lighthouse, Jamestown Rhode Island Facing southwest (1976)
Facing southwest (1976)

Beavertail Lighthouse, Jamestown Rhode Island Facing north, fog signaling apparatus at right is where second lighthouse was located (1976)
Facing north, fog signaling apparatus at right is where second lighthouse was located (1976)