Description: Guarding the entrance to the Providence River, the first lighthouse at Conimicut Point Shoal was established in 1868, when a lantern room and a fourth-order Fresnel lens were placed atop a granite tower that had been placed on the shoal in 1866 as a daymark to guide navigators through the dangerous waters separating Rocky Point and Bristol. This fixed white light, for which mariners had petitioned the Lighthouse Board, allowed the nearby Nayatt Point Lighthouse to be discontinued.
While the addition of a lighthouse here was a blessing for ships navigating the Providence River, it was a nuisance for keepers assigned to the station, as living quarters had not been included in the plans. Keeper Davis Perry and his assistant were forced to row back and forth to the quarters at the Nayatt Point Lighthouse, across the bay. The mile-long trip had to be made in a small rowboat, often while fighting dangerous currents and avoiding ship traffic.
In 1873, Congress appropriated $15,000 for a dwelling at Conimicut Lighthouse, "Provided , that upon completion of said the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized and directed to sell, at public auction, after due notice, and either in one parcel or divided into lots, the land constituting the site of the old light-station at Nayat Point." A keeper’s dwelling was accordingly added at Conimicut Shoal on a pier just north of the tower, and the old dwelling at Nayatt was placed under the care of a custodian. In March of 1875, Keeper Horace Arnold and his son barely escaped the dwelling as "a heavy field of floating ice" crashed into the structure and demolished it. The keeper and his son jumped onto a passing ice floe, where they sat for several hours until a tug rescued them. The furnishings and all of their possessions were lost, and the keeper was once again forced to live at Nayatt Point, which fortunately the government had not yet sold. Four years later, Keeper Arnold was awarded $319 as compensation for his possessions lost in the incident.
The first Conimicut Lighthouse, which was "in a very leaky condition" and "greatly out of repair" was torn down in 1883, and the present cast-iron caisson-type “Spark Plug” structure and pier were completed. The new lighthouse is similar in design to lighthouses at Stamford Harbor, Latimer Reef, Whale Rock, and Tarrytown. When the new Conimicut light went into service, the Nayatt Point station was given to a caretaker, who stayed there until it was sold at auction in 1890.
Ellsworth Smith was serving as keeper of Conimicut Lighthouse in June 1922, when his thirty-year-old wife Nellie gave poison tablets to the couple's two-year-old and five-year-old sons and then took poison herself. A year at the remote station was too much for Nellie Smith, who had become morose and despondent and threatened to kill herself on more than one occasion if her husband didn't take her away from the lighthouse. On June 8, 1922, Keeper Smith had business ashore, and in his absence, Nellie found his keys, opened the medicine cabinet, and administered poison to her two sons, telling them they were candy. When Keeper Smith returned that evening, he found the two-year-old dead on a table and his wife expired on her bed, but the older son, disliking the taste of the tablet, had spat it out and was still alive, though in terrible agony. Smith rushed the boy ashore, where he was administered an antidote and taken to relatives. Understandably, Conimicut Lighthouse was dark that evening, but mariners received a broadcast apprising them of the outage.
As a general rule, lighthouse keepers were glad to have visitors to help relieve the isolation, but some of Conimicut’s keepers may have had second thoughts about that. Local fishermen often came to the lighthouse to fish off the rock foundation. By the mid-1930s, there were sometimes forty to sixty people all crowded on the riprap at the same time. With Coast Guard help, the station was eventually posted as off-limits, and the keeper could return to his peace and quiet.
Conimicut was one of the last lighthouses in the United States to convert its lantern from acetylene gas power to electricity. This change was made in 1960, and three years later the beacon was automated, and the original fourth-order Fresnel lens and keepers were removed from the fifty-eight foot tall tower. Conimicut remains an active aid to navigation, flashing a white light every 2.5 seconds, and the lighthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
On his website, Rhode Island resident and serious swimmer John Foraste describes a recreational open-water swim he and a buddy undertook from Nayatt Point to the Conimicut Lighthouse and back, a distance of about a mile each way. “While it was pretty much at slack tide, there was a sailor's wind making the water choppy. It was blowing from the south towards us as we headed to the Light. Rich and I got pounded and couldn't maintain a good stroke, but stuck with it. We were well rewarded as we stood on the rocks at the base of Conimicut Light in the middle of the Bay and enjoyed a view which probably only a few have enjoyed (should have had a camera!).” The round trip swim took the two men almost exactly one hour.
The City of Warwick, Rhode Island acquired the Conimicut Lighthouse in 2004, under provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. In a ceremony on September 29, 2004 held at the Elizabeth Buffum Chance Center, the transfer to the town was made official. Two former Conimicut keepers, Fred Mikkelsen and Robert Onosko, were present at the ceremony. While the Coast Guard remains responsible for the care and maintenance of the lighthouse beacon and fog signal, the city of Warwick maintains the lighthouse structure. In 2005, the state Department of Transportation awarded $560,000 in federal transportation enhancement funds to help restore the lighthouse.
Located at the entrance to the Providence River from Narragansett Bay. The lighthouse is owned by the City of Warwick. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the City of Warwick. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.