For generations they have stood tall along Rhode Island’s shorelines helping to safely guide maritime traffic.
Now, with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s recommendation, the federal government is poised to enter into official agreements to transfer a trio of historic Rhode Island lighthouses to new owners who will preserve them for future generations, according to U.S. Senator Jack Reed.
Senator Reed says he expects Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown will be turned over to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM); the Sandy Point Lighthouse in Prudence Island will be turned over to the Prudence Conservancy; and the Watch Hill Lighthouse in Westerly will be turned over to the Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association (WHLKA), all at no cost to taxpayers.
Since the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) of 2000 (P.L. 106-355) was enacted, the federal government has transferred ownership of over 150 lighthouses to applicants nationwide, with 81 transferred to governments and nonprofits at no-cost and another 70 auctioned off, raising more than $10 million for the Coast Guard to reinvest in its Aids to Navigation (ATON) mission, according to GSA.
In some cases, the U.S. Coast Guard will continue operating the lights and fog horns as active navigation aids, as needed. But going forward, the day-to-day operations of the three Rhode Island lighthouses will be turned over to their new owners.
Senator Reed says the three historic lighthouses were deemed “excess property” by the U.S. government.
The NHLPA directed GSA to begin the process of transferring ownership of lighthouses that are no longer critical navigational tools, but retain historical significance, to entities that would care for them. Under the law, nonprofits and local and state governments may apply for ownership and caretaking responsibilities of the former federal properties. Successful applicants must demonstrate an ability to maintain and preserve the lighthouses and make them open to the public for educational, cultural, and recreational uses.
“These lighthouses are part of Rhode Island’s history and continue to serve as local landmarks, boosting tourism and preserving public spaces with breathtaking views. Transferring ownership to local care and ensuring the preservation of these sites is a win for the community. It ensures public access and will keep the lighthouses standing as symbolic beacons for future generations,” said Senator Reed, a member of the Appropriations Committee who is working on new legislation, the LIGHTS Act, to make new federal grants available for historic lighthouse preservation work. “Rhode Islanders are beaming with delight because this means DEM and responsible nonprofits will keep watch over these landmarks and ensure they continue to remain a strong, enduring symbol of Rhode Island’s maritime heritage.”
The Ocean State is currently home to 22 working lighthouses, as well as the ruins of several more, and was once home to famed lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis, who helped operate and tend the Lime Rock Lighthouse in Newport from the 1850s through the 1870s, and earned the nickname as “the Bravest Woman in America” for her life-saving heroics.
Each of the three applications were approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, which recommends the GSA go forward with transferring ownership.
“With over a half million visitors every year, Beavertail State Park is a shining light in Rhode Island’s network of state parks,” said Governor Dan McKee. “We’re glad to add the Beavertail Lighthouse, with its light tower, museum, and aquarium to our stewardship of this iconic landmark for Rhode Islanders and visitors to the Ocean State.”
The historic granite Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown is the third-oldest lighthouse site in America. The Beavertail Lighthouse, which was first erected in 1749 and rebuilt as a 68-foot tower in 1856, faces south toward the Rhode Island Sound and the exit of Narragansett Bay.
The original lighthouse on the property was burned down by British soldiers leaving the Newport area in 1779. The foundation of that lighthouse remains onsite. The current lighthouse and 6 ancillary structures total 5,171 square feet.
The lighthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Today, the lighthouse serves as a museum that is free and open to the public, with visitors offered an opportunity to climb to the top of the lookout tower for panoramic views of Rhode Island Sound.
“Beavertail State Park offers the best of Rhode Island, with panoramic views of Narragansett Bay, grassy fields for picnicking, hiking trails, shoreline access for fishing, and historic buildings with rich histories,” said Rhode Island DEM Director Terry Gray. “DEM appreciates the longstanding partnership of the Town of Jamestown and the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association in preserving this historic destination for the public.”
In 1993, residents formed the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association (BLMA) as a volunteer organization – with management, operation, maintenance, and education kept up through financial support and grants.
BLMA helped to protect and preserve the Beavertail Lighthouse Station, supported restoration of lighthouses and related memorabilia, and helped educate the public about lighthouses and lifesaving by maintaining the museum and offering educational programs. DEM will oversee the property going forward.
Built two centuries ago, and noted as the oldest lighthouse in Rhode Island that is still standing and operating, the Sandy Point Lighthouse was originally constructed in Newport Harbor in 1823 and then moved to Prudence Island in Portsmouth in 1851.
The 28-foot, cast iron lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Notably, the hurricane of 1938 claimed the lives of the lighthouse keeper’s wife and son, but the structure itself survived the storm.
Today, the 28-foot-tall octagonal granite light tower occupies a two-acre property on the east side of Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay, about a mile off the mainland. The two-story light tower is one of a few in the country capped by a “bird cage” lantern. The lighthouse is only accessible by boat and is not open to the public.
In 2001, the Prudence Island Conservancy began managing the Sandy Point Lighthouse in conjunction with the Coast Guard. Today, the lighthouse uses solar power and remains an active part of the Coast Guard’s ATON system, which will continue after conveyance.
“This is great news. The Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association is honored and eager to be awarded stewardship of the historic Watch Hill Light Station. The Lighthouse has held a prominent and significant place in the greater Westerly community for over two centuries. The Tower’s construction of Westerly granite and the Light’s vital position as a protective signal within the shipping industry highlight the importance of the Town of Westerly and Village of Watch Hill to the history of Rhode Island. The WHLKA looks forward to advancing its mission to preserve and protect the structures and open park space for the enjoyment of the public and to providing enriching education about the importance of this site to all visitors. On behalf of the WHLKA and all who have supported our work over the years, I express my gratitude to all the entities and public officials who facilitated this process. We are thrilled to begin this next chapter of our stewardship of this beloved landmark,” said Ann Snowden Johnson, President of WHLKA.
Erected in 1855, the Watch Hill Lighthouse tower and its surrounding structures are part of the Watch Hill Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The WHLKA will also assume ownership of the oil house built in 1855-56, a brick signal house from the early 20th century and a workshop built in 1939, as part of the transfer.
From the 1850s until 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service operated the lighthouse. In 1939, the service merged with the U.S. Coast Guard, which took over operations until 1986, when the nonprofit Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association began maintaining the property through a temporary agreement with the Coast Guard.
While the lighthouse itself and adjacent structures are not open to the public, the lighthouse grounds are accessible via a private road and are open from 8 a.m. to sunset year-round. Vehicles are permitted only for seniors and people with disabilities.
On select weekday afternoons, visitors can tour WHKLA’s museum on site, which is open to the public and tells the history of the Lighthouse; contains artifacts and photographs illustrating the structures at various historic periods; and showcases the original Fourth Order Fresnel Lens.
In 2019, Senator Reed secured $220,000 in federal funding for the Coast Guard to conduct an environmental site investigation and remediate lead hazards in the soil around the Watch Hill Lighthouse.
ADDITIONAL LIGHTHOUSE AVAILABLE IN WARWICK & AROUND NEW ENGLAND and PA
According to GSA, the Warwick Neck Lighthouse is 51 feet high, capped with a cast iron lantern room, housing a modern light signal. Along with the lighthouse, the 0.8-acre property includes a single-family dwelling, detached garage, and storage shed.
Warwick Neck Lighthouse was built in 1827, and the dwelling was built in 1932. The lighthouse was automated in 1985 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Like Newport Buzz? We depend on the generosity of readers like you who support us, to help with our mission to keep you informed and entertained with local, independent news and content. We truly appreciate your trust and support!