The resulting wooden tower stood sixty-eight feet tall, was twenty-four feet in diameter at its base, and tapered to thirteen feet at the lantern deck. The lighthouse, known early on as Newport Lighthouse, was the third to be built in what would become the United States. Abel Franklin, a member of the committee charged to construct the lighthouse, was appointed the first keeper.
The wooden lighthouse burned to the ground on July 23, 1753, only four years after it was finished, and in 1754 a fifty-eight-foot brick and stone tower was built to replace it.
During the early part of the Revolutionary War, British troops controlled Newport. In 1779, as they were retreating, the redcoats set fire to the lighthouse and took the optic. Although the fire warped the masonry walls, the tower was repaired and put back into service in 1783. After Rhode Island ratified the U.S. constitution in 1790, control of the lighthouse passed from the state to the federal government, and Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, recommended that William Martin be retained as keeper of the lighthouse at an annual salary of $140.
Beavertail Lighthouse was used repeatedly to conduct experiments with new fog signals and lighting equipment. In 1817, a local inventor named David Melville tried out a new coal gas process. The gas was generated by burning a mixture of coal and tree resin and piped through copper tubing to a chandelier in the lantern room. The cheaply produced gas resulted in a brighter and cleaner light, but lobbying pressure from the companies that sold whale oil (which was the standard fuel for lighthouse beacons at that time) brought an abrupt end to Melville’s work less than a year after it began.
In 1851, another experiment involved a fog signal created by Celadon Daboll, an inventor from New London, Connecticut. Daboll’s foghorn, which consisted of a vibrating metal reed inside a long trumpet, was powered by compressed air that was pumped into a 200-cubic-gallon holding tank by a horse attached to a revolving apparatus. Six years later, Daboll’s foghorn was replaced by an experimental steam whistle.
Edward Carpender, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, surveyed and examined all the lighthouses between Newport and Boston in 1838 and included the following information on Beavertail Lighthouse in his report to the Secretary of the Treasury:
This useful light stands on the southern extremity of Conanicut island, 98 feet above the level of the sea, in a stone tower 64 feet high. It consists of 15 lamps, with 9-inch reflectors, on two circular tables – 8 on the lower, and 7 on the upper table. The reflectors are from 3 to 4 ¾ inches apart, and 5 of them are so much worn as to be of very little use. I recommend, as in other similar instances, the removal of these reflectors, so that the full power of all the lamps may be seen from all points of the compass.
I visited this light in the morning, and found the keeper [Sylvester Hazzard] had left home without having guarded against accidental detention, by first preparing his lamps, reflectors, &c. for use. Indeed, the reflectors had the appearance of not having been cleaned for some days, which might have been owing to the painting and repairs just done to the tower.
During an 1851 inspection, the stone lighthouse was described as the “worst built tower yet seen,” and found to be “in wretched condition,” inside and out. Congress provided $14,500 in August 1854 for a new lighthouse, illuminating apparatus, and fog signal for the station, and work at the site commenced in the spring of 1856.
After the third-order Fresnel lens started producing a fixed white light atop the new ten-foot-square tower on October 20, 1856, the old 1754 tower was razed to its foundation, and when a new two-story brick keeper’s dwelling was completed, the prior dwelling was demolished as well. A second keeper’s dwelling was built in 1898 to provide housing for an assistant keeper, which office had been added to the station in 1857.
On June 26, 1899, the optic was downgraded to a smaller fourth-order lens that produced “a group of eight flashes succeeding one another at intervals of about 2 seconds, followed by a dark interval of 15 seconds.” Two months later, the upper half of the previously unpainted granite tower was given a coat of white paint.
Artillerymen at nearby Fort Adams often practiced firing dummy shells into the sea, but one day in December 1908, their aim was particularly bad. One five-inch shell narrowly missed the lighthouse tower, another landed in the yard behind the keeper’s house, and a third hit the tower’s foundation, causing the keepers to run for cover. The War Department repaired the damage and assured the Lighthouse Board that the station would never be shelled again.
When electricity reached the station in 1931, the lantern room’s clear windows were covered with green Plexiglas storm panes to change the light’s characteristic, and an electric strobe device was mounted on top of the keeper’s dwelling to automatically activate a fog signal when visibility fell below two miles.
When a passerby tried to rescue Caswell, he responded, “Please let me die. I lost a whole bunch of the kids I had in the school bus. Everything’s gone. Please don’t move me. Let me die.” Caswell did survive, and when Keeper Chellis arrived at the scene, Caswell told him “I got your boy, but your daughter’s dead – gone.” Grief-stricken by the news, Chellis grabbed a handful of rocks and broke out all the windows in the overturned bus. Caswell died shortly after the incident, unable to cope with the deaths of the children. Seven years later, Clayton Chellis drowned in the Pacific Ocean, during his World War II tour of duty.
Beavertail Light was automated in 1972. The station remains an active aid to navigation and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The grounds are open to the public, and the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association (BLMA) operates a museum in the keeper’s quarters and assistant keeper’s dwelling that is open seasonally. One of its main exhibits is the fourth-order Fresnel lens that was removed from the lighthouse in 1991. The fog signal building currently houses an aquarium display operated by the state Department of Environmental Management.
In 2007, The Champlin Foundations awarded a $227,000 grant to BLMA to preserve and restore the granite light tower. Over an eleven-month period in 2008-2009, ABCORE Restorations Inc. replaced or repaired all the deteriorated metalwork in the tower, installed new window panes in the lantern room, and repointed the tower’s granite blocks. The stone foundation from the 1749 lighthouse was restored in 2012 and then capped the following year with concrete featuring a compass rose. The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association mounted two replica trumpet foghorns on the fog signal building in 2014.