2009-10-01 / Front Page

Keepers of the Dutch Island light

This is the first in a series about keepers of the Dutch Island Lighthouse.
By Sue Maden and Rosemary Enright

The Dutch Island lighthouse. The Dutch Island lighthouse. The first Dutch Island lighthouse and its keeper’s cottage were built at the southern tip of Dutch Island in 1826 on land ceded by R.I. to the U.S. government. A year later, the first lighthouse keeper was appointed and – according to the Rhode Island Republican – the light was first lit on the same day.

For well over a century, until the Coast Guard automated the light in February, 1947, a keeper lived on the island, tending the light. Many brought their families with them.

Life on the 81-acre island was not always easy.

The keeper was not allowed to leave his station without permission from a superior, except in an emergency and then only for 24 hours and after supplying a suitable substitute. Transportation to and from the island was by rowboat, and the original keeper’s house was a four-room cottage built from stone and slate found on the island.

In the early days, lighthouse keepers were political appointees – often retired seamen. But in 1852, the U.S. Light-House Board was formed and rules were issued restricting appointments to “persons between the ages of 18 and 50, who can read, write, and keep accounts, are able to do the requisite manual labor, to pull and sail a boat, and have enough mechanical ability to make necessary minor repairs about the premises, and keep them painted, whitewashed, and in order.”

In 1896, keepers became civil service employees, and in 1937, the service was merged with the Coast Guard.

Worst in the state

The first keeper of Dutch Island could not have been appointed under the 1852 rules.

William Dennis, a Newport native and Revolutionary War veteran, was 80 years old when he took charge of the new Dutch Island light.

He had gone to sea at a young age and was in command of a merchant vessel based in London when the first shots of the Revolution were fired. He hurried home to take part in the uprising and during the war, commanded six different privateering vessels.

He was twice taken prisoner.

After the war, from 1801 to 1813, Dennis served as sheriff of Newport County. He served as the keeper at the lighthouse until shortly before his death at 93. Toward the end of his career, reports from the local superintendent indicate that the old man was not up to the job. His son, Robert, took over at least some of the tasks, although he was not officially appointed to the post.

When complaints surfaced that Robert was not living on the island and therefore could not be the keeper, he wrote an impassioned letter to the board, pleading with them to let his father live out his remaining days at the lighthouse.

Dennis resigned in August 1843 and died the following month.

The second keeper, Robert H. Weeden, stayed at Dutch Island for only 15 months. It was during his short tenure that Lighthouse Superintendent William Ennis reported that the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters were “the worst constructed of any in the state.”

William P. Babcock, his successor, was appointed during the Whig administration of John Tyler. Three months later, the Democratic candidate James K. Polk was elected president. Babcock, fearing the loss of his job, wrote to Polk’s Treasury secretary: “I have a desire to inform your honor that I like my situation, and should be very sorry to lose it, for I am poor, and it is all I shall have to depend on to support my family through the winter. … If keeping a good light and attending to my duty will ensure your honor’s approbation, I should be grateful for the favor.”

Bitter complaints

Babcock kept the position until September 1846, when Robert Dennis returned to the island – this time as the officially appointed keeper. Because of his father’s time as keeper, Dennis must have been more aware than his two predecessors of the conditions under which he would be expected to live. Reports filed by his superiors indicate that he was sometimes vocal in complaining about them.

Edward W. Lawton, customs collector at Newport and the superintendent of local lighthouses – describing the keeper’s cottage – said that toadstools grew out of the lintels and thick moss covered the wall. “The Keeper complains bitterly about his lodging accommodations . . .” he reported.

A report from Thomas Coggeshall to Lawton about work he was doing on the light itself documents the sad shape of the 22-year-old lighthouse: “. . .I find the sashes in Lantern in most miserable order. I have already set 24 and there are some few in lantern yet to set & the defective putty comprises all outside of Lantern & all other sashes. … There are some 40 lights 7x9 to be set here that absolutely require it.”

Nonetheless, the younger Dennis was given high marks as a lighthouse keeper.

An 1850 inspection praised him, saying he was “a good honest man, and I think he shows a good light, although a moderate consumer of oil.” Conservative use of the oil used in the lighthouse lantern – while still maintaining a good light – was highly valued.

After seven years as keeper, Dennis was relieved in August 1853 by Benjamin Congdon. Congdon was the last keeper to live in the original four-room cottage.

The 1855 annual report on the lighthouse described its condition using words like “wretched, cramped and broken.” In 1856, Congress appropriated $4,000 to build a new lighthouse station, including a new house for the keeper.

The new living quarters were a great improvement. The two-story brick building was connected to the light tower. A parlor, living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor and three bedrooms on the second provided about 1,200 square feet of living space.

The interior walls were finished with lath and plaster. Although still sometimes damp – as island houses are likely to be – and exposed to any severe storm that came up the bay, it was more comfortable and livable than the earlier cottage. Congdon moved into his new dwelling in 1857.

At about the same time, life on the island became a little less lonely.

In 1852, Powell H. Carpenter, a businessman from Providence with connections in Narragansett, bought most of the island, intending to build a fish oil production plant. His venture failed and in 1864, he sold his land to the federal government. The next generation of lighthouse keepers would share the island with the U.S. Army.

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