Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport Rhode Island

Date added: December 04, 2023 Categories: Rhode Island Lighthouse
Aerial view of Rose Island lighthouse looking southeast (2000)

Built in 1869 and put in service in January 1870, Rose Island Lighthouse is a distinctive and well-known landmark vividly recalling for present-day Rhode Islanders and visitors the maritime heritage of Narragansett Bay. Erected during the heyday of coastal transportation, when hundreds of passenger steamers, freighters, and fishing vessels plied local waters. Rose Island Light warned navigators away from treacherous shoals north of Newport Harbor in the main channel leading from Block Island Sound and Newport up the Bay to Fall River, Providence and lesser ports. Part of a system of navigational aids that guided Bay pilots, Rose Island light is remarkable because it is so highly visible. Every day, thousands of motorists view it from the elevated lanes of Newport Bridge. No other Rhode Island lighthouse is so fixed in popular memory.

Architecturally, Rose Island Lighthouse is of conventional design for its period and for the characteristics of its relatively protected site away from the open sea. Three nearly identical lighthouses once existed in Narragansett Bay at Gaspee Point, Sabin Point and Pomham Rocks. Only the latter, built in 1871, survives; located off East Providence.

Like the structure itself, the signal housed in Rose Island Lighthouse was standard: a fixed, red, sixth-order Fresnel beacon--the smallest Fresnel lens, used in harbors, bays and rivers. As was characteristic in the post-Civil War period, Rose Island's first keepers were wounded Union Army veterans who lived on the premises with their families. Lighthouse tending remained a family affair until the Lighthouse Service was discontinued and the Coast Guard took over in 1941.

Ironically, Newport Bridge, the very bridge which makes Rose Island Light uniquely prominent today, conferring upon its emblematic status as a symbol of the Bay's maritime heritage, has rendered Rose Island Lighthouse obsolete. Construction of the bridge required changes in the main channel and thus new navigational aids. The bridge opened in 1969; Rose Island Light became inactive in 1971. For a time it served as a scientific monitoring station utilized by the University of Rhode Island. This use has discontinued, however, and the lighthouse has been vacant and subject to vandalism for several years.

Site Description

Rose Island Lighthouse, put in service in 1870 and inactive since 1971, remains a very visible presence in lower Narragansett Bay. Lying some 1% miles northwest of Newport Harbor in the main passage up the Bay and a half mile south of Newport Bridge, it is not only familiar to mariners, but also to motorists crossing the bridge. Low-lying Rose Island is dominated by this single navigational landmark.

The 1½-acre lighthouse site takes up the 14-acre island's southwest point. Atop the natural rock of this promontory, a circular stone bastion was erected, 85 feet in diameter and twelve feet high. This structure, built c. 1798 as the southwest work of Fort Hamilton, forms a podium on which the lighthouse stands. A variety of long-unused, relatively low, military structures dot the remainder of the island.

The lighthouse, painted red and white, is a small yet striking building-. a boldly scaled, visually, dominant 1½-story, mansard-roofed frame structure. An octagonal tower rising from the west facade at the roofline carries an octagonal iron lantern surrounded by an iron-railed balcony. From ground level to lantern top, Rose Island Lighthouse is some 40 feet tall. The original section of the structure, erected in 1869, measures 30 by 26 feet; a rear ell, 18 by 10, was added in the early twentieth century. The exterior walls were originally clapboard; since the 1938 Hurricane, they have been clad with wood shingle. The roof deck was and is covered with sheet metal. The sides of the mansard were originally covered with patterned slate but now, like the walls, are shingle-clad. Extra-wide gutters catch rainwater from the roof, and this water supply was channeled to a basement cistern. The cistern survives but has been superseded by a 10,000-gallon outdoor tank located at the back of the building. The lighthouse exterior is in fairly good condition, save for the loss of a number of windows and doors destroyed by vandals.

The interior, though badly vandalized, remains basically intact. The building is divided into two dwelling units, one on the first floor and one on the second. On the first floor are five rooms; kitchen, dining room, two bedrooms, and what on 1940-vintage plans was styled a "music room," the latter subsequently converted into a bath. On the second floor were three bedrooms (one later converted into a bath), a dining room, a kitchen and a store room. The watch room, at the third-story level in the tower, leads via a hatch into the octagonal glazed lantern which has been empty of equipment since 1971. It housed a red, sixth-order Fresnel beacon, 61 feet above the water, visible for eleven miles. The cellar below the lighthouse is largely taken up by the 4,000-gallon, brick-vaulted and brick-lined cistern. Little interior trim survives in the building, but what is left is very simple and indicates that the lighthouse interiors could be restored without too much difficulty.

Several ancillary structures surround Rose Island Lighthouse: the water tank noted above; three fuel tanks; a gable-roofed, 1-story brick storage shed with a leanto addition; and a small, square, hip-roofed brick structure below the circular bastion on the rocks west of the lighthouse where a fog signal was housed.

Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport Rhode Island Aerial view of Rose Island lighthouse looking southeast (2000)
Aerial view of Rose Island lighthouse looking southeast (2000)

Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport Rhode Island View from the northwest, from Newport Bridge (1984)
View from the northwest, from Newport Bridge (1984)

Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport Rhode Island View from the southeast (1984)
View from the southeast (1984)

Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport Rhode Island View from the southeast (1984)
View from the southeast (1984)

Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport Rhode Island First floor plan (1984)
First floor plan (1984)

Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport Rhode Island View of staircase (1984)
View of staircase (1984)