JHS 100 years: Lighting up Narragansett Bay for ship captains
Colonial Newport with its sheltered harbor and immediate access to the Atlantic shipping lanes rivaled Boston as a major East Coast port. By the middle of the 18th century, ships cleared the port almost daily for Europe, Africa and the southern colonies.
Sailing into Narragansett Bay can be tricky. Rocky reefs rise abruptly from the seabed. From a distance, the shorelines of South County, Conanicut Island and Newport blend into a solid landmass making visual identification of the entrance into the East Passage, with its narrow, deep water channel to the harbor, difficult. A prudent sailing ship captain did not enter or leave the bay at night or in heavy fog. The delays ate into profits.
Clearly, a navigational marker was needed. The southern tip of Conanicut Island, a point that could be seen from almost everywhere in Block Island Sound, was ideal.
The first “watch house” at Beavertail was built in the 17th century, although the date isn’t clear – one source suggests as early as 1667. On April 10, 1705, the Jamestown Town Council ordered “that there shall be a chimney built to the Watch house by the Indians belonging to this town, at Beaver Tail watch house at the discretion of Capt Stephen Remington.” Seven years later, on June 9, 1712, the council once again returned to the needs of the watch house. “It is ordered that Gershom Remington [town constable] shall warn the Indian men to build a beacon at Beaver Tail and to come to John Hull’s house for his direction where and how to make it; ... upon forfeiture of three shillings each man that is defective.” The council also ordered Benedict Arnold, on whose farm the watch house stood, to “look after the watch and see that it is faithfully keept [sic].”
A beacon was not the same as a lighthouse. A beacon did not burn steadily, as the light in a lighthouse does, but was lit when the occasion demanded. The watch for ships to trigger the beacon was therefore critical.
The purpose of the watch house, beacon and faithfully kept watch may have been two-fold. The appointment of Stephen Remington, a captain in the militia as well as a ship’s captain, supports the view that they were part of a system to warn of danger from foreign navies, privateers and pirates during the series of European wars between 1689 and 1763 that are sometimes called, in America, the French and Indian Wars. They were also, and perhaps primarily, a way of guiding peaceful ships into and out of Narragansett Bay.
Although Jamestown, according to town records, kept the watch house and beacon in repair, pressure for a true lighthouse increased as commerce on the bay grew. In 1738, the General Assembly authorized a lighthouse and allocated money from tariffs on shipping to build it, but one of the recurring European wars – this one between England and Spain – interfered and nothing was done.
Finally, in February 1749, Newport appointed a committee “to build a lighthouse at Beaver Tail on the island of Jamestown, alias Conanicut, as there appears a great necessity for a lighthouse as several misfortunes have happened lately for want of a light.” In June, the General Assembly voted funds for the project. Peter Harrison, who had recently returned from studying architecture in Europe, was hired to design it. By the end of the year, a 69-foot-high wooden tower stood next to a keeper’s cottage, perhaps the old watch house. Abel Franklin, who had kept the beacon, was hired to tend the 11- foot whale-oil lamp atop the tower.
The wooden lighthouse burned to the ground in July 1753, less than four years after it was built. Within the month, the General Assembly authorized its replacement. The new lighthouse was built of stone salvaged from the rebuilding of a fort on Goat Island. While the tower was under construction, Abel Franklin kept a lantern lit as a much less effective aid to navigation.
The 1753 lighthouse guided ships into and out of the bay – with a short hiatus in the later days of the American Revolution – until the current lighthouse was built in 1856. Rhode Island reluctantly turned the light over to the fouryear old federal Lighthouse Establishment in 1793 with the proviso that “if the United States shall, at any Time hereafter, neglect to keep lighted, and in Repair, the Light- House aforesaid, that then the Grant of said Light-House shall be void and of no Effect.”
This is the seventh in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.