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 Beavertail, RI    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: Although Rhode Island’s first settlers were farmers, the colony shortly developed a thriving maritime economy as well. By the early 18th century, it was estimated that one in four men living in Rhode Island made their living in some way from the sea. Although exports included tobacco, maize, and lumber, the export of rum was the basis of a notorious trade triangle involving rum, slaves, and molasses. Ships took rum to West Africa, where it was traded for slaves. The slaves were then taken to the West Indies, where they were traded for molasses and sugar, which was brought back to Newport. In a single five-year period in the 1730s, over six thousand Africans were delivered to the Caribbean islands. Slave commerce was an important part of Rhode Island’s economy for around 100 years.

The rising importance of shipping to the colony of Rhode Island led to a lighthouse being proposed for the southern tip of Conanicut Island, known as Beavertail Point. Beginning in 1731, ships calling at Newport had their cargoes taxed to fund the future lighthouse. Construction was delayed for about ten years by war between England and Spain, but the lighthouse was finally finished in 1749. The 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 the Newport Lighthouse, was the third to be built in what would become the United States.

The wooden lighthouse burned to the ground only four years after it was finished, but in 1754 a fifty-eight-foot brick and stone tower was built to replace it. A wooden spiral staircase led to the lantern room, which housed a light consisting of a two-tiered spider lamp with fifteen whale-oil burning wicks, each with a nine-inch reflector.

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. In 1827 the lantern was refitted with a Winslow Lewis optic that could be seen for sixteen miles.

Since the station was so close to the water, it often caught the full force of storms. Sometime during the early 1800s, Keeper Philip Caswell and his family were forced to flee when high waves threatened to destroy the small two-room keeper’s house. The dwelling escaped this storm with minimal damage, but the hurricane of 1815 would destroy the edifice. Fortunately, Caswell had again moved his family elsewhere before the storm as a precaution. The lighthouse tower survived the hurricane, although all twenty panes of glass in the lantern house were broken. The next year, a new five-room keeper’s dwelling was constructed.

The 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 holding tank by a horse attached to a revolving walker. Six years later, Daboll’s foghorn was replaced by an experimental steam whistle.

Aerial view of Beavertail Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Robert H. Weeded accepted the position of keeper of Beavertail Lighthouse in 1844. Upon his death, four years later, his wife, Damaris, took over responsibility for the lighthouse. Damaris is the only female keeper to serve at Beavertail, and aided by her son, she remained at the lighthouse for nine years after her husband’s death, just long enough to see the completion of the currently standing 52-foot granite block tower.

The old 1754 tower was razed to its foundation, and when a new keeper’s dwelling was completed in 1859, the prior dwelling was demolished as well. The new 1856 tower was equipped with a third-order Fresnel lens that produced a fixed white light. Somewhere around 1899, the optic was downgraded to a smaller fourth-order lens.

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 it would not happen 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.

With its exposed location, the Beavertail Lighthouse was bound to suffer from the infamous hurricane of 1938 that caused so much damage at stations in Rhode Island. The wind-driven waves swept away the station’s fog signal building, revealing the foundation of the 1749 lighthouse. Although the facilities at the lighthouse were damaged, the loss suffered by Keeper Carl Chellis was far worse. His son, Clayton, and daughter, Marion, were returning home on a school bus, when storm surge toppled the vehicle as it crossed a causeway. Norman Caswell, the driver of the bus, recalls “I saw that we would have to leave the bus or be drowned like rats. I told the children to grab each other tightly. I had hold of several when the huge wave came over us. I went down twice. When I came up, I saw Clayton Chellis swimming around. He was the only one who was saved besides me.”

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, currently equipped with a modern plastic lens, 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 formerly used in the lighthouse.

The Champlin Foundations awarded a 2007 grant of $227,000 to BLMA to preserve and restore the granite light tower. BLMA has plans to expand into other buildings on the property as soon as they are excessed by the Coast Guard. The fog signal building currently houses an aquarium display operated by the state Department of Environmental Management. The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association mounted two replica trumpet foghorns on the fog signal building in 2014.

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 on the southernmost tip of Conanicut Island.
Latitude: 41.44941
Longitude: -71.39946

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


Travel Instructions: From Highway 138 on the eastern side of Conanicut Island, take Canonicus Avenue south 0.9 miles to Narragansett Avenue. Turn right on Narrangansett and drive 0.4 miles to S. West Avenue. Turn left on S. West Avenue and follow it to the narrow neck of land, which leads to the second lobe of the island. At this point, the road becomes Beaver Tail Road. Follow Beaver Tail Road to its end at Beaver Tail State Park, where you will find the lighthouse. The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum was opened in the assistant keeper's dwelling in 1989. The museum is open daily during the summer and on weekends in late spring and early fall. Call (401) 423-3270 for more information. A fourth-order Fresnel lens is on display in the museum.

Rhode Island Bay Cruises offers a 10 Lighthouses of Narragansett Bay cruise that passes by the Beavertail Lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and the site is managed by the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association. Grounds open, tower closed, museum in assistant keeper's dwelling.

Find the closest hotels to Beavertail Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
The remains of the Whale Rock Lighthouse, which was destroyed in the Hurricane of 1938, are visible from the Beavertail Lighthouse.

See our List of Lighthouses in Rhode Island

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