|Conanicut Island, RI|
Description: In the late 1800s, the Wickford Rail and Steamboat Company operated a ferry between Newport and Wickford, in Narragansett Bay. The company had a private arrangement with the landowners on the northern tip of Conanicut Island to operate a light beacon for the ferry captains’ benefit. In 1882, the company was apparently the force behind a petition asking for the government to place an official lighthouse on the site, since the boat company would have been the primary beneficiary of such a beacon.
Two years later, Congress approved $18,000 in funding for that purpose. The Lighthouse Board purchased a 200-foot strip of land, less than an acre altogether, on the northern tip of the island. The cost was $1,000, but there was a delay because a member of the Conanicut Park Land Company, whose signature was required on the title papers, was in Europe. Work began in the summer of 1885, with a break near the end of the year to wait out the winter weather. A temporary beacon was put up at that time, but it apparently wasn’t good enough to stop the steamer Eolus from running aground on the rocks just west of the lighthouse during a blinding snowstorm. Fortunately, nobody was injured in the incident, and passengers were taken ashore in small boats and put up in local farmhouses.
Conanicut Point was one of the more attractive posts from a keeper’s point of view. The tower was in a quiet place, yet it was land-based and conveniently close to Jamestown, the nearest town. A keeper didn’t even have to leave his house to tend to duties in the lighthouse, and since the lantern was only forty-seven feet above the water, there wasn’t the endless stair climbing typical of so many lighthouse towers. When assigning such relatively comfortable posts, preference was given to keepers that had previously worked at more remote or dangerous stations. The first keeper at Conanicut, Horace W. Arnold, definitely qualified on those counts.
Arnold, an eighth-generation descendant of Benedict Arnold, was a native of the area, born and raised on Prudence Island at the north end of Narragansett Bay. After starting his career in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Newport, he became assistant keeper at Beavertail Light for two years. While stationed there, he met the keeper’s daughter, Amy Elizabeth Rathbun. They married in 1858 when she was 17 and he was 19. In 1861, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the Civil War for three years. He survived the war without serious incident, but ironically was almost killed in a shipwreck on the way home after discharge. Next, Arnold enlisted in the Navy for a year, after which he worked on coastal schooners, which he gave up after a schooner he was on sank in Long Island Sound. He then served as keeper for thirteen years at Conimicut Light.
Arnold was famous for an incident that occurred at Conimicut Lighthouse one winter. Heavy ice floes were seriously threatening the lighthouse, and at one point Arnold deemed it prudent to abandon the station. Along with his son, Keeper Arnold seated himself atop a mattress on an ice floe to escape the danger. Captain Sutton of the tug Reliance, who rescued Arnold and his son, wrote that the keeper appeared “sitting like a man on a magic carpet.” Arnold was frostbitten so badly that it was several months before he could resume his duty at the light station.
The granite Conimicut tower survived the ice, but the keeper’s house was a total loss, including $319 worth of furniture. Proving that bureaucratic red tape is not a modern innovation, Arnold had to wait five years to be reimbursed for his loss. While the house was being rebuilt, Arnold’s family stayed at the keeper’s quarters at nearby Nayatt Point Lighthouse, which was no longer active since the establishment of the Conimicut Lighthouse.
Even in the best of circumstances, Conimicut was not a pleasant place to be stationed, so it was perhaps not surprising when Arnold wrote to the Lighthouse Board in 1880 asking to be transferred to a less exciting station. Six more years passed, but he was offered the position as the first keeper at the comfortable and convenient Conanicut Lighthouse. Arnold was keeper at Conanicut for twenty-eight of its forty-eight years as an active lighthouse. Life was not entirely boring there, as evidenced by notes kept by Arnold during his duty. A storm in April of 1911 is described as “the severest I ever saw in 37 years of keeping light,” while another storm in December of the same year was a “very hard blow, hardest since I have lived here for the past 27 years.”
By the early 1930s, it was decided that the amount of ship traffic did not justify the cost of a manned lighthouse, and so the Conanicut Point Lighthouse was deactivated in 1933 and its lantern and lens removed. The lighthouse was replaced by a forty-foot skeleton tower placed about fifty feet east of the old lighthouse. The skeleton tower was equipped with an automated, electrically powered modern 375-mm lens, with a 300-mm lens as a backup light. The tower showed a fixed red light.
The trend toward automation accelerated during the next few years. By the end of World War II, only thirteen lighthouses in Rhode Island were still manned by keepers – four stations by civilians, the rest by Coast Guard personnel. The skeleton light at Conanicut remained in service until the early 1980s.
The lighthouse and grounds were declared surplus and sold at auction in 1934 for $2,874. The structure’s appearance has changed little since then. The Conanicut Island Lighthouse is listed in the National Register for Historic Places. The station is now a private residence, and neither the lighthouse nor the grounds are open to the public.
Located at the northern tip of Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay. Rhode Island Bay Cruises offers a 10 Lighthouses of Narragansett Bay cruise that passes by the Conanicut Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Rhode Island Bay Cruises offers a 10 Lighthouses of Narragansett Bay cruise that passes by the Conanicut Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Conanicut Island Lighthouse serves as the home of the Bishop family in the 2012 movie Moonrise Kingdom. Two other Rhode Island lighthouses also appear in the movie: Castle Hill Lighthouse, and Point Judith Lighthouse, but for some reason they decided to add red and white stripes to Point Judith Lighthouse.
See our List of Lighthouses in Rhode Island
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.