Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association


History of the Beavertail Lighthouse

1657 Conanicut Island was purchased from the Narragansett Indians by a group of settlers from Newport.
1712 The first official request for a permanent navigational aid (a lighthouse) was recorded in the documents of the Newport Town Meeting.
1731 To raise funds for lighthouse construction, the first tariff was placed on imported and exported cargo passing through Newport (10 shillings per ton foreign; 18 shillings per ton local).
1749 In February, the following appeared in the Newport Town Record:

"A committee was appointed to build a Lighthouse at Beavertail 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."

Construction of the first lighthouse, the third in the colonies, began in May and ended in September. Peter Harrison was the architect. The lighthouse was constructed of wood. The tower was 58 feet high to cornice with an 11-foot lantern on top. Abel Franklin was appointed the first keeper.

1753 The wooden lighthouse was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original. Stones from Goat Island were used as building materials. The foundation is visible today 100 feet in front of the present light tower. Abel Franklin manned his post during construction, warning ships with a hand held lantern.
1779 British soldiers retreating from Newport burned the tower and removed the lighting equipment, leaving the beacon darkened for the rest of the Revolution.
1783 Repair of the lighthouse was completed. United States Congress established its authority over the nation's twelve lighthouses. Not until 1793 did the Rhode Island General Assembly agree to transfer Beavertail Light to the Federal Government.
1817 The beacon was lit with manufactured gas for one year in an experiment conducted by Newport inventor David Melville. Despite the cleaner, brighter flame produced by gas, the backers of whale oil persuaded the Federal Government to end its support for this competing form of fuel.
1852 United States Lighthouse Board was established, and the agency quickly set about creating a modern lighthouse system.
1856 A new lighthouse was constructed to replace the deteriorating 1753 structure. The new one measured 10 feet square, and 64 feet to the beacon. The new optic was a third-order Fresnel lens imported from France, a sparkling beehive of glass similar to that now housed in the Museum. The old tower was removed and on its foundation was built a fog-whistle house.
1857 The first in a series of experiments involving fog-warning devices took place at Beavertail. A Daboll "Fog Trumpet" -- driven by compressed air -- was tested. This was followed by the installation of the first steam powered foghorn in 1857. Several other "firsts" in foghorn equipment were tested at Beavertail over the next 40 years.
1898 A dwelling was added to house an assistant keeper, who helped with fog signal duties. This house now serves as the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum.
1931 The first electric light beacon was installed during the tenure of Captain George T. Manders, who served as keeper for 24 years.
1938 The Great Hurricane of 1938 exposed the foundation of the original lighthouse, 100 feet in front of the present light. Hidden by the fog whistle building, it had long been forgotten.
1939 The Bureau of Lighthouses -- which in 1910 had replaced the Lighthouse Board -- relinquished its responsibilities for navigational aids to the United States Coast Guard, which continues these duties today.
1972 The beacon was automated, part of a program which in 1989 ended the profession of lighthouse keeping in the United States (except for the Boston Light). BM 1st Class John Baxter was the last keeper to serve at Beavertail, 1970-1972.
1977 The Beavertail Light Station placed on the National Register of Historic Places

1983 The Rhode Island Parks Association began restoring the deteriorating Assistant Keeper's House as a lighthouse museum.
1989 The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum was opened, the result of a joint effort by the Rhode Island Parks Association, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Town of Jamestown, and the United States Coast Guard.
1991 The fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed and replaced by a rotating beacon. This lens is now displayed in the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum.
1993 Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association founded
2010 A major restoration of the site buildings including the granite light tower were undertaken by the BLMA costing $350,000. Project funded by grants from Champlin Foundation, RI Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission, BLMA members and donors.
2012 Original 1749 Foundation restored. Click for photos
2013 Museum expanded 3 times its original size into 4 site buildings, including upgraded exhibits, a small theatre and visitor interactive displays. Project funded by the van Beuren Foundation.
2014 Fog Signal Building restored and equipped with two replica fog horns.

The Fresnel Lens

In early times, people built bonfires or set blazing torches along the shoreline to alert sailors to approaching dangers and their location. With the advent of lighthouses, ground-level warnings were replaced by beacons, illuminated with whale oil or lard. The Keeper not only made sure that the lamp was lit, but the smoke residue required continuously cleaning of the lenses so that the flame could be seen far out to sea. In 1748, Georges de Buffon began to re-design the expensive, cumbersome lens; in 1822, a French Physicist named Augustin Fresnel invented a less- expensive, lightweight lens. An open flame or a flame with reflectors behind it lost up to 83% of its light. His invention dramatically retained all but 17% of its light. Frensel lenses became the # 1 system along the seacoasts of Europe and America.

Seven types, or "orders" of the Frensel lens were created; each shaped like a beehive with a light in the center. The curved, concentrate rings of glass prisms were designed to " bend " the light into a very narrow beam which could easily cast its light 20 or more miles to the horizon.

Three "large" orders were developed for use along seacoasts around the world. A three-and-a-half order was used mostly in the Great Lakes. The smaller orders were used for harbors or bay lights.

The original 3rd Order Fresnel lens imported from France in 1856 was replaced with a smaller, 4th Order lens in 1907 followed by a variety of light characteristics including flashing green and combinations of white flashes with occulting rates. Both fixed and rotating lights mechanically rotated by clock mechanisms were used until 1991 when a more modern aero type rotating beacon was installed. The present beacon rotates once every 9 seconds.

Click for a full size image

The last 4th order fixed "beehive" Fresnel lens is prominently on display in the museum and serves as a constant reminder that it honorably served "the men who go down to the sea in ships".

For More Information

New England Lighthouses
A Virtual Guide

You may be interested in reading the Beavertail Lighthouse history page from Jeremy D'Entremont's web site New England Lighthouses: A virtual Guide.

Click Here

Beavertail Light Station

A book by BLMA Board Member Varoujan Karentz

250 years of history about America's 3rd oldest lighthouse, beginning before the Revolutionary War, about the people, its development, and those that used this navigation aid at the entrance of Narragansett Bay. Technological innovation and federal bureaucratic conflict as four different organizations beginning in 1749 attempt to improve operations and reliability. Navigation hazards, shipwrecks, piloting, light improvements and fog signal experiments made Rhode Island's Beavertail Light Station one of the most important landmarks in New England. The book follows the early slave trade and Colonists who insisted the lighthouse be built and describes the work ethics and reporting requirements of the generations of 'Keepers' who tended the light. Modern methods, electricity and improved operations are taken over by the US Coast Guard to automate the light station replacing whale oil and fossil fuel burners used by the US Lighthouse Board during the 1800's

Available in the BLMA Gift Shop

Some notes on our historic buildings

The dwellings that house the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum were built in 1856 (Keeper House and Tower) and (Assistant Keeper House) built in 1898 to help maintain both the beacon and foghorn systems. The first floors of both buildings are now used to exhibit artifacts and story boards. Included is a small theater, interactive video displays and a gift shop. Another building, the former Oil Storage building in the rear of the keeper buildings also houses museum story boards.

The last of the larger fog signaling buildings,using steam whistles was destroyed in the 1938 hurricane. The subsequent removal of building and equipment debris revealed the remains of the 1749 stone foundation of the first light tower sited at Beavertail. It was the 3rd lighthouse built in America. This foundation was recently restored. The destroyed foghorn building was replaced by the current, smaller fog-signal house along with its two fog horn system generators and compressors,that presently houses the RI Department of Environmental Management’s(RIDEM) aquarium. Adjacent to the 1749 foundation, remains another smaller stone foundation of Beavertail's Fog Bell. Beavertail Light station was the first in America to use a bell to warn mariners. The bell was actuated by a wind up mechanism.

In 1972 both the light in the tower and the fog signal were automated by the U.S. Coast Guard and Keepers were no longer required. The buildings were abandoned and remained vacant until the RIDEM, Town of Jamestown and later the BLMA recognized the need to preserve the historic buildings and provide an educational venue for the public .

Restoration of both keepers’ houses began in 1983, and the museum opened in 1989 as a part of the RI State Parks Association. The non-profit Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association (BLMA) was organized in 1993 by a dedicated group of docents, some of whom still serve the all-volunteer association today in all its endeavors to preserve the site and the building for future generations.

The Light Station and buildings inside the perimeter wooden fence belong to the U.S. Coast Guard. Both the light and fog signal are active navigation aids and maintained by them. RIDEM under licence with USCG in turn delegates BLMA to maintain the grounds, buildings and museum under a Memorandum Of Understanding.

Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association

PO Box 83 - Jamestown, RI 02835

Site Contents © BLMA 2018

A 501(c)3 NON-PROFIT Corp.

BLMA is a member of the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce

phone: (401)423-3270