Rose Island History
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Rose Island Lighthouse History, Newport, RI
The story of the Rose Island lighthouse begins in the mid-1860’s at a time when the state of Rhode Island was growing and shipping traffic was increasing on Narragansett bay. Steamship companies were building up during this time ferrying passengers and freight in the bay between Newport, New York and Boston. As a result, a request to construct a lighthouse on Rose Island was made and in 1869 construction began to build Rose Island light at a cost reported to be $7,500. The lighthouse was built on the southwest bastion of old Fort Hamilton and its fixed red light was first shone over lower Narragansett Bay on January 20, 1870. A fog bell was added to the lighthouse on August 10, 1885 and then replaced with a fog horn on November 12, 1912.
The first Keeper of the Rose Island light was George C. Williams, a Civil War veteran, who was appointed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Charles S. Curtis was Keeper at Rose Island for the longest period of time between 1887 and 1918. His appointment was significant for many reasons, but first and foremost was the connection with his grandson, who was Wanton Chase. Wanton Chase lived with Charles and Christina Curtis on Rose Island for many years in the early 1900’s until Charles retired in 1918. The significance was to the future, which will be told later in this story. The first assistant Keeper, Juilius Johanssen, arrived in 1912 to tend to the new steam powered foghorn. Other Keepers came and went over the years and they included Gustavas Clarke 1879 to 1887, Delancy E. Roode 1917-1919, Thomas Pickup 1919-1921, A.B Bassett 1920-1921, E.W. Newton 1921-1926, Jesse Orton 1926-1936, Charles Eldredge 1926-1941, and George Bell 1936-1941. The U.S Coast Guard took over management of the lighthouse in 1941 and remained in control until 1970 when the Rose Island Lighthouse was decommissioned and taken out of service. The reason for the lighthouse being taken out of service was simple: the construction of the Newport Pell Bridge was completed and all necessary aids to navigation were situated upon the bridge, rendering the Rose Island lighthouse obsolete.
During the period of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, several attempts were made to find a purpose for the lighthouse. The Federal Government considered the property surplus and first offered it to local communities, none of whom wanted to take it. Other attempts also failed allowing the property to sit idle and become the target of vandals who ruined the building and took anything left in it of value. This was also alleged to include the valuable and unique sixth order Fresnel lens that was left behind. The lamp was broken by vandals and said to have been thrown into the bay with only pieces left behind. In 1984 a local group from Newport led by Charlotte Johnson and Curt Bunting, organized an effort to “save” the lighthouse from demolition. Their group became known as the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation (RILF) and are credited with convincing the City of Newport to take ownership of the lighthouse from the Federal Government. On October 2, 1985, the lighthouse was deeded to the City of Newport as no cost from the Feds. The City then delegated management authority to the RILF who developed a mission to restore the lighthouse to its former glory and open it as a museum to the public. In 1985, the RILF began this mission of restoration of the lighthouse by collecting donations of labor, materials and cash to complete the restoration and by organizing and implementing these plans. On National Lighthouse Day, August 7, 1993, the lighthouse restoration was deemed completed and for the first time in over 20 years, the Rose Island Lighthouse was back in operation beaming a beacon from the tower 48 feet over Narragansett Bay to help guide ships and shipping traffic up into the bay. Rose Island Light is officially considered a Private Aid to Navigation, sanctioned officially by the U.S. Coast Guard, but maintained by RILF.
Earlier, a mention was made of Wanton Chase, the grandson of Charles Curtis, Keeper of the light during the period 1887-1918. Wanton lived at the lighthouse between 1913 and 1918 at age five to ten. After leaving Rose Island, Wanton continued to live in Newport and was an important part of the local community. When the RILF first established its office in 1985, a fellow visited the office one day looking for information about the restoration project and offering help. It was then that the staff realized that it was Wanton Chase who had lived in the lighthouse and had intimate knowledge of life on the island during those early days. At 77, Wanton was instrumental in helping the RILF understand how the lighthouse operated when he lived there as he shared his memories of the place. How it looked, what they did, many of his childhood memories and how they lived were all brought to life. The lighthouse museum is today configured to look as it did during 1910 to 1918 when Wanton lived there, right down to the coal and wood stove in the kitchen that his meals were cooked on and that heated the house to keep them all warm on those cold winter nights. A great deal of credit goes to this man who certainly helped along with the other many dedicated volunteers to “save” Rose Island lighthouse.
Today, the Rose Island lighthouse is completely restored and is open to the public during the spring and summer as a witness to maritime life and history of the late 19th and early 20th century. Today the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is preserved in all its glory, forever