Rose Island Lighthouse

Rose Island is an 18.5-acre sentry in Narragansett Bay just south of the Newport Pell Bridge. It has had numerous lives and is currently a popular tourist venue. There are two National Register properties on the island: the lighthouse and the remains of Fort Hamilton. This article is about the lighthouse. 

The lighthouse was built for $7,500 in 1870 based on a design by Vermont architect Albert Dow who was also responsible for two others in Rhode Island: Sabin Point and Pomham Rocks farther up Narragansett Bay. The structure sits atop Fort Hamilton's south battery at the southwestern point of the island, replacing a privately-operated beacon installed by the Merchants Steamship Company. 

The island lies in a strategic location guarding the east passage into Narragansett Bay, one of the finest protected bodies of water on the Atlantic coast. The presence of Fort Hamilton attests to the advantageous position the island enjoys, with deep water between it and Jamestown Island to the west. In the mid-19th century, this waterway was teeming with hundreds of vessels passing by the island on their way to the ocean and northward to the cities of Providence and Fall River, as well as smaller towns such as Bristol. To the east of Rose Island are numerous shoals and reefs, which still occasionally claim pleasure boaters. 

Reproduction Fresnel lens, looking towards Newport, Photo Credit Brian Tefft
Click image to enlarge.

The light was first officially placed in operation on January 20, 1870, its fixed sixth order Fresnel lens displaying a red light, warning mariners to steer clear. The lens is the smallest one produced by Fresnel and was used primarily in harbors, bays, and rivers. In 1885, an A-frame tower was erected on the island to house a bell and automatic striking mechanism which rang out every 15 seconds in fog, a frequent visitor to the area. The lighthouse keepers were employed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, a federal agency. Initially the service used wounded Union veterans who lived on the island with their families. In 1939 the lighthouse service was abolished, and its duties were taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Plymouth aground on Rose Island with salvage crew at work,
Photo Credit: Merrit-Chapman and Scott
Click image to enlarge.

Although not situated on the open ocean, Rose Island has seen its fair share of storms and hurricanes, and perhaps the most dangerous: fog. In 1894 the Fall River Line steamer Plymouth ran aground on the south shore despite the efforts of Captain Elijah Davis, ironically nicknamed the Fog Eater. Fortunately, all 700 passengers were able to reach the island safely, Plymouth remained grounded for quite some time though. 

US Navy and Coast Guard vessels fighting fires engulfing S.E. Graham on August 7, 1958,
note proximity to Rose Island Lighthouse, Photo Credit: R. Holmes
Click image to enlarge.

The lighthouse is designed to prevent maritime disasters, but on August 7, 1958 it was almost destroyed by just such an event. That morning two tankers, S.E. Graham and Gulfoil collided near Fort Adams and were soon engulfed in flames from the gasoline cargo on Graham. The fire and collision rendered both vessels dead in the water and they drifted on the incoming tide directly toward Rose Island. Quick action by Coast Guard and US Navy fireboats from Newport managed to prevent fire from spreading to the lighthouse, but the heat was so intense from 200 feet away that the keepers, Theodore Bank and Robert Flynn had to move out of harm's way. 

Newport Bridge under construction c. 1967, Photo Credit: US Coast Guard
Click image to enlarge.

In 1970 the Newport Bridge was completed, effectively making the lighthouse obsolete from a navigation standpoint. The bridge was equipped with all the latest lights and at the great height of her towers, the Rose Island light was dwarfed, sounding the death knell for her as the sole guiding beacon for many miles around. She was deactivated in 1971. The buildings and light were essentially abandoned shortly thereafter and suffered from neglect and vandalism. In 1984 the property was declared surplus by the federal government and the City of Newport took over ownership. In July of that year the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation was formed, and with both public and private funding began restoring the lighthouse. By 1992 it was able to open to the public. 

The following year the light came back to life shining bright, starting on August 7 with a white light flashing every six seconds. On that day Christopher Owens, a previous caretaker watched the relighting: "Flipping the switch and watching that beacon light for the first time in 20 years was special, yet for me the magic moment followed seconds later. All was quiet for a moment, then I heard one small horn and another and yet another until we were surrounded by sounding horns from all around the bay. Boats, cars...horns of every sort sounded." 

In 1999 the Foundation was able to acquire the rest of the island and today it is a popular destination despite the need to access it by boat. On August 12, 2013 a reproduction Fresnel lens was installed, giving visitors a chance to get up close and personal whilst taking in one of the best views in New England from the top of the light tower. 

Today the Foundation has an active education program which affords visitors the opportunity to experience what life was like for the island's keepers and their families. For the more adventurous, overnight stays are available in several rooms in the main building and in the Fort Hamilton barracks. An upstairs apartment is reserved for those willing to act as a keeper for a week, with daily duties such as weather recording and flag raising and monitoring electric and water usage. 

View looking north towards Rose Island 2018, Photo Credit: Brian Tefft
Click image to enlarge.

Rose Island is truly a gem in a very crowded array of Newport historical sites given its location and 360-degree views. Surrounded by water on all sides and constantly buffeted by all types of weather, it is not the oldest lighthouse in the state -- that honor falls to Beavertail, built in 1749. Yet combined with her military remains, she is a microcosm of local history, weaving together all the elements that make Newport and indeed Rhode Island such a unique place. She is one of the first sights visitors glimpse as they drive over the Newport Pell Bridge, the very bridge which temporarily blacked out her light. Thanks to an active group of volunteers and the Foundation, the Rose Island Lighthouse once again welcomes mariners and landlubbers alike. 

Bob Cembrola
Exhibits Manager
Naval War College Museum


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