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 Plum Beach, RI    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: Mariners who used the West Passage of Narragansett Bay in the late 1800s plead for a navigational aid near Plum Beach Shoal for many years. Sometimes in heavy fog, captains trying to avoid Dutch Island went too far west and ended up running aground on the shoal. In 1895, Congress finally approved $60,000 for building a lighthouse and fog signal at Plum Beach.

Just after construction of the cast-iron tower began during the summer of 1896, crews discovered that the bedrock was much deeper than they had thought, and funds ran out before the foundation could be securely anchored. When work stopped, the foundation was barely above high mean water and was covered with timber. A temporary warning light and fog bell were mounted atop the foundation.

Plum Beach Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
When Congress allocated additional funds in 1898 work resumed, but poor weather caused more delays. During a blizzard, the construction ship dragged anchor and headed down the West Passage of the bay. Just when it looked as if the schooner and crew would either smash on the rocks or be carried out to open sea, the anchor caught on a cable near Beavertail. In a December 3, 1898 letter to the Lighthouse Board asking for a temporary halt to construction, the contractor wrote, “Plum beach, Narragansett Bay is the stormiest place we ever worked. It is either raining or blowing half the time.” Work ceased shortly thereafter and resumed in the spring. The lighthouse was finally completed in May of 1899.

The cast-iron foundation of the Plum Beach Light is one of thirteen light stations that were built using a unique pneumatic construction technique. First, a multi-sectioned caisson was assembled and put onto a barge. Before being transported, a central access pipe was inserted into the caisson. This pipe contained air supply and pressure tubes, a ladder, and a system to convey sand and muck up to the surface.

After being barged to the construction site, the caisson was turned upright and sunk into the soft seabed. Once the caisson had settled, water was pumped out from the empty chamber at the bottom. At the same time, sections from the high mean watermark downward were filled with concrete. As the debris was cleared out, the caisson settled about thirty feet into the bay’s floor.

The beacon was a kerosene-powered fourth-order Fresnel lens showing a flashing white light. The lens floated on a mercury bed and was rotated by a clockwork mechanism activated by weights dropping through a central tube.

The winter of 1918 was a difficult one at Plum Beach Lighthouse. The entire bay froze over allowing automobiles to drive across the ice. The shifting of the thick sheets of ice caused a one-inch crack that circled the entire lighthouse to develop two feet above the low tide level. Other vertical cracks extended below the water line. The construction bids received for the repairs were considered too high, and nothing was done for several years. Finally in 1922 the cracks were fixed, and an additional 9,000 tons or riprap were placed around the foundation for extra protection. The repairs held until 1938, when the Great New England Hurricane opened the old cracks, created new ones, and caused quite a bit of damage to the tower. Keepers Edwin Babcock and John Ganze were unable to get away from the station before the storm and had to ride the hurricane out in the tower. Waves as high as thirty-five feet tore open doors and flooded the building. The two men tied themselves to the center pipe containing the weights that turned the beacon. Lighthouse and keepers made it through the storm in one piece, unlike the Whale Rock Light five miles away, which was destroyed.

When the first Jamestown Bridge opened in 1940, the Plum Beach Light was made obsolete. The beacon was permanently turned off in January of 1941 and put up for auction by the Coast Guard, with the proviso that the winner had to dismantle and move the lighthouse. There were no bids, and the station was abandoned shortly thereafter. A long period of neglect followed, during which windows and doors disappeared, the cast-iron rusted, and bird droppings piled up on all the decks.

The Coast Guard and the state of Rhode Island bickered over the lighthouse for years, with neither party wanting to assume responsibility for the structure. In 1984, James Osborn, who was paid to paint the lighthouse in 1973, filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the state to compensate for an eye disease he contracted from all the guano in the tower. The lawsuit went back and forth between Rhode Island’s Superior and Supreme Courts for years. In June of 1998, the courts determined the state was the owner of the lighthouse, and three months later the state paid Osborn $42,000.

In 1988 a private company tried to buy the lighthouse and move it to a condominium complex in Quincy, Massachusetts, where it would be turned into a lighthouse history museum. When this plan became public, the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse was formed to retain the tower and preserve and restore it in place. Neither group, however, was able to move ahead with their plans as the question of ownership was still being debated in the courts.

With the ownership issue resolved, the state gave the title to the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse in 1999. The nonprofit obtained $500,000 that same year under the Transportation Act for the 21st Century, and Newport Collaborative Architects visited the site in 2000 to estimate the cost of completely restoring the tower.

In 2003, restoration of the exterior of the lighthouse was begun by Abcore Restoration Company. The first step was the removal of over 50 tons of guano left by feathered visitors over the years. The interior was fully cleaned and the outside painted and repaired. In December of 2003, the station was relighted for the first time in 62 years, using a solar-powered beacon flashing a white light every five seconds.

References

  1. America’s Atlantic Coast Lighthouses, Kenneth Kochel, 1996.
  2. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.

Location: Located in the western passage of Narragansett Bay, just north of the Jamestown Bridge (Highway 138).
Latitude: 41.53027
Longitude: -71.40517

For a larger map of Plum Beach Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: The lighthouse is best viewed from the water, but decent views can be had from the Jamestown Bridge or from the shore at either end of the bridge. Rhode Island Bay Cruises offers a 10 Lighthouses of Narragansett Bay cruise that passes by the Plum Beach Lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse. Tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Plum Beach Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
An aerial view of Plum Beach Lighthouse can be seen in the movie "Dan in Real Life," when Dan is driving his three girls over the Jamestown Bridge to visit his parents at their home on Conanicut Island.

See our List of Lighthouses in Rhode Island

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Paul Thomas, used by permission.