Improved Beavertail Lighthouse Museum open for season
About 30,000 visitors passed through the door of the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum last year, and yet it remains a place that many Jamestown residents are unfamiliar with. Fewer still have actually visited. Now that the museum is open for the season, that’s a situation that can be easily rectified.
The museum is located in Beavertail State Park. The 160-acre park was designated in 1980, and the lighthouse and auxiliary buildings sit on 7 acres. The museum in 2013 was expanded from a small facility that occupied the two rooms of the assistant keeper’s cottage, to one that encompasses the much larger lighthouse keeper’s home as well.
There are six buildings on the site, which has been used to guide ships since 1749. The original Beavertail Light was the third in the United States, after the Boston Harbor Light (1716) and the Great Point Light on Nantucket (1746). Since 1977, the functions of the lighthouse and foghorn have been automated by the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard owns the property and licenses the site to the state Department of Environmental Management under an agreement with the town of Jamestown.
“One of these days the lighthouse is going to be declared excess property,” said Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association board member Varoujan Karentz. “We thought it was better to have a state organization in control, so when that happens, we can file an application to include the property in the state park.”
In addition to the expansion, in recent years the museum association has taken steps to shore up the site of the original lighthouse, which was badly eroded by Hurricane Sandy. The work was finished in the spring of last year. The existing tower, which was built in 1856 along with the keeper’s house and the first of several buildings that housed a fog signal, also needed repair. It was recently repointed by a local mason.
The last of the large buildings was destroyed by the 1938 hurricane. When the building was removed, the base of the 1749 tower was revealed. A new building for the fog signal was built at the time, and today that building houses an aquarium run by the state. Restoration of both the keeper’s house and the assistant keeper’s house began in 1983, and the museum opened in 1989. That museum has now tripled in size.
Visitors can begin their tour of the museum by watching a short video in the museum’s new minitheater. The video gives an overview of the state’s lighthouses. The expanded museum features a room filled with 3-D storyboards that tell the story of Rhode Island’s beacons, breaking down the history into the early years, golden era, years of decline and restoration efforts.
“Rhode Island is used as an example of what happened to lighthouses nationally,” said association member Richard Sullivan.
The basic concepts of the museum haven’t changed, Sullivan said, but new materials and fresh stories have been added.
Visitors to the museum can also get a look at a fourth-order Fresnel lens that at one time served as the southeast light at Block Island. In another room, an exhibit focuses on the sociocultural aspects of the life of a lighthouse keeper. Included in the exhibit are documents on loan from the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Museum that illustrate the paperwork that was required of a keeper.
An interactive display relates the rich history of Beavertail during World War II, including information about the submarine nets and mine fields that were deployed in the bay, and the Navy’s ultra-secret testing of airborne radars. Another display showcases the major maritime events that have taken place in local waters since the 17th century, including shipwrecks and other marine disasters.
There is a new display that tells the story of the ship pilots who have worked the local waters over the years, laying out a description of the fierce rivalry that dominated the profession, and the jealousy that occasionally led to armed conflict.
The gift shop concludes the tour. Visitors can choose from an array of books, jewelry, clothes and posters. The sale proceeds go to assist the museum association in its mission to preserve the property. The association itself is an all-volunteer organization.
The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Labor Day. This year the lighthouse tower will be open for climbing on a number of occasions, including June 21 and July 5. More dates are listed on BeavertailLight.org.
“We are proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” said Karentz, “and we are anxious for the public to take advantage of it.”