2009-10-08 / News

Keepers of the Dutch Island light: Military presence

By Sue Maden and Rosemary Enright

The Dutch Island Lighthouse in a glass negative image created about 1900. Photos courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society. The Dutch Island Lighthouse in a glass negative image created about 1900. Photos courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society. This is the second in a series about keepers of the Dutch Island Lighthouse.

When Matthew Trundy arrived on Dutch Island in late 1859, he was 64 or 65 years old – like so many of the earlier keepers, older than the 1852 rules allowed. Trundy, previously a baker in Newport, was one of the few keepers who seems to have had no previous lighthouse or maritime experience.

His 64-year-old wife, Phebe, came with him. The census for 1860 shows two younger people – their son, William, age 42, and a domestic named Eliza, age 26 – living with the couple in the new house.

During Trundy’s time – he was keeper throughout the Civil War – the U.S. Army built Camp Bailey, the first fort on Dutch Island. Two defensive systems were constructed. One of them – the “Lower Battery” – was only about 700 feet north of the lighthouse and the small group living at the lighthouse must have watched the activity with much interest. There is no record of communication, though. An outbreak of smallpox during the winter of 1863-64 among the troops of the 14th R.I. Heavy Artillery Regiment (colored) who were building the batteries may have led the keeper and his family to keep their distance from the Army contingent.

William W. Wales William W. Wales The next keeper, William W. Wales, was a native Rhode Islander. He grew up in Middletown in the 1820s and 1830s, and served in the Fifth R.I. regiment during the Civil War. After the war, in the fall of 1865, he was given charge of the Dutch Island light and moved to the island with his wife and three sons. Military activity continued on the island, but at a much lower pace during peacetime. Wales was transferred to the Beavertail Light in 1873 and died there in 1895.

When Wales moved to Beavertail, Andrew King, who had been assistant keeper at the Beavertail Light for the preceding five years under his father, Thomas King, was promoted to keeper at Dutch Island. The Kings were a wellknown local family of fishermen and bay pilots who lived on Jamestown in the West Ferry area.

Virtual inactivity

King stayed on Dutch Island for less than two years. During that time, the population on Dutch Island dwindled to 13 people – 12, including an engineer, his household and one soldier at the Army post, as well as one light keeper. It was the beginning of over 20 years of virtual inactivity for the military installation.

But the inactivity did not extend to the lighthouse.

George Fife became keeper in 1875 – the first immigrant to hold the post. The Fifes were world travelers. Fife and his wife, Marion, were both born in England. Their two older daughters were born in Brazil; the third was born at the Dutch Island light the year after the family came there.

Three years after the family arrived, changes began to take place both in their living conditions and in their work.

During the first 50 years of the station, a well supplied the water for the house, but the water was brackish and not suitable for drinking. In 1878, a proper cistern for the collection of rainwater was added in the basement of the keeper’s house. Sixty years later, the keeper’s wife insisted on boiling the cistern water before using it even for laundry – she claimed it had an odd smell – but it was a definite improvement on the earlier well.

A fog signal was added the same year.

“The U.S. steamer Mistletoe has arrived at Dutch Island with a large fog whistle to be put up at that place. This has long been needed, and mariners will rejoice to know of this action of the government,” reported the Newport Daily News on Dec. 4, 1877.

The fog signal – actually a bell that protruded from a window near the top of the lighthouse tower – was powered by a clock-like mechanism that had to be wound up every few hours. Marion Fife was appointed assistant keeper to help her husband with the extra work that the fog bell required. She continued as the official assistant keeper until she and her husband left Dutch Island.

Henry W. Crawford, who took over from the Fifes in 1883, was a merchant seaman before joining the lighthouse service. For 10 years before coming to Dutch Island, he was the keeper of the Newport Harbor lighthouse on Goat Island. In Newport, his wife, Lydia, had been his assistant keeper. She was not appointed to help officially with his duties on Dutch Island, but like many keepers’ wives, she undoubtedly continued to serve in that capacity during the family’s two-year stay at the post.

The end of solitude

Lewis T. King – a New Yorker and no relation to the Jamestown Kings – came to Dutch Island with his wife, Harriet, in 1885 and stayed at the light for 16 years, the longest service of any keeper. He was described in an article about Dutch Island that appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal in Sept.1889 as, “the red-whiskered” owner of a small King Charles spaniel that “objected seriously to the visit …The keeper was glad to have a call.”

According to the reporter, King spoke in “good, old Down East style” and complained of vandalism perpetrated by picnickers who came to the island from Jamestown and Saunderstown – a complaint that would be repeated many times during the next 120 years. When asked if the water ever bothered him, he said that the ocean spray “came against the house, and swept clean over the light sometimes.” But it didn’t seem to concern him except for the extra work it made.

In 1889, the Kings shared the island only with Ordinance Sergeant B.F. Morrell and his family, the sole representatives of the U.S. Army left to guard the remains of the batteries that had been built between 1863 and 1875. By the end of the next decade, however, military interest in the island, sparked by the threat from Spain that culminated in 1898 in the Spanish- American War, had returned. Battery Hale, with 10-inch disappearing guns, was constructed in the center of the island in 1897. Batteries Mitchell, Sedgwick and Ogden – the closest battery to the lighthouse – followed. The military “post on Dutch Island” was christened Fort Greble. By the time King left his post as Dutch Island lighthouse keeper, barracks for 200 men, plus officers’ quarters and logistical support buildings, had been built within a mile of the keeper’s previously solitary post.

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