Monday, May 11, 2009

Lighthouse of the Week: Newport Harbor Light, Rhode Island

This lighthouse is one of the easiest in Rhode Island to visit, as it's located on the grounds of Newport's Hyatt Regency Hotel. It's relatively small and unassuming, but it has a rich history.

The deep, protected harbor at Newport was the key to its development from the start. By the early 1820s, it became clear that a lighthouse was needed to help guide vessels into the harbor, and on March 23, 1823, Congress appropriated $2,500 for that purpose.

The original lighthouse exhibited a fixed white light, visible for 14 nautical miles. Keeper Samuel Watson first illuminated the multiple oil lamps in the lantern on January 1, 1824. The 20-foot octagonal freestone and brick tower was fraught with problems almost from the start.

According to a report by Lt. George M. Bache of the U.S. Navy in 1838, the tower was “in a very bad condition, owing to its faulty construction.” He also found much wrong with the six-room stone keeper’s dwelling, which he said was badly built.

A dangerous reef extended out from the northern end of the island, and vessels often went aground there. In the late 1830s a breakwater was constructed over the reef. It was planned at first that the lighthouse would be relocated to the end of the breakwater. Instead, a new 35-foot granite tower was erected on the breakwater. The Army Corps of Engineers completed the breakwater in 1842. The old lighthouse remained in use until December 18, 1842, when the new tower was lighted for the first time.

At first, the keepers continued to live in the original dwelling. The original lighthouse tower was relocated to Prudence Island in 1851 and remains in operation there today. It is the oldest surviving lighthouse in the state.

John Case spent a decade (1853–63) as keeper. The next man to take the position, John Heath, died on September 24, 1868, and his wife received the appointment to replace him. Mary Ann Heath remained keeper until 1873, when Henry Crawford succeeded her.

Having a comfortable two-story house attached to the tower certainly made life easier for the keepers and their families, but Mary Ann Heath must have had quite a scare when a tremendous storm on September 8, 1869, carried away about a third of the slate roof and damaged her boat, which parted its moorings.

In 1869, the Secretary of War authorized the U.S. Navy to take over Goat Island for a new Naval Torpedo Station. The station was an important center for experimentation with various torpedoes and mines, for training of personnel, and eventually for the manufacture of torpedoes. During World War II, the station became the largest employer in the state, with more than 12,600 employees. Eighty percent of the torpedoes used in the war were produced at Goat Island.

Charles Schoeneman would become such a fixture as keeper that locals often simply referred to the lighthouse as Schoeneman’s Light. Keeper Schoeneman spent a remarkable 39 years at the station. An article on the occasion of Schoeneman’s retirement recalled the famous Portland Gale (the steamship Portland sank during the storm, with the loss of about 200 lives) of November 26, 1898. The storm broke every window on the north side of the keeper’s house.

On November 9, 1921, the 155-foot submarine N-4 rammed the breakwater near the lighthouse, causing damage to the foundation of the keeper’s dwelling and signaling the end of the staffed light station on Goat Island. Schoeneman retired during the following year, and the keeper’s house was demolished. The light was electrified, and personnel from the torpedo station took over its operation. The light was automated in 1963.

The Coast Guard licensed the lighthouse to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) in 2000. Newport Harbor Light, known to most locals as Goat Island Light or simply “the Green Light,” continues as an active aid to navigation, its fixed green light 33 feet above the water.

There's more on this page and in my book, "The Lighthouses of Rhode Island."

Latest list for NHLPA

Under the National Historic Lighthouse Act of 2000, each year several lighthouses are being transferred to suitable new owners. If no qualified organizations apply, the lighthouses are auctioned to the general public. The latest list includes three very historic lighthouses in the Northeast:

Robbins Reef Light in New Jersey, longtime home to heroic lighthouse keeper Kate Walker.

Saddleback Ledge Light in Maine, a rugged and remote lighthouse designed by famed architect Alexander Parris.

Minot's Ledge Light (left), off Boston's South Shore in Massachusetts, one of the greatest of all American lighthouse engineering achievements and one of the world's great wave-swept towers.

For the rest of the lighthouses on the list, check Sue Clark's "Lighthouse News" site.

Hopefully, some qualified nonprofit organization -- or maybe a partnership or coalition of multiple groups -- will be interested in Minot's Ledge Light. To me, it would be a crime to sell one of our most historic lighthouses to the high bidder.