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JAMESTOWN, R.I. — Here, at the southern tip of Conanicut Island, the sea meets the sky in three directions. Waves crash upon the rocky shore, spraying those who scramble over the boulders or cast fishing lines from the cliffs.
Beavertail Lighthouse overlooks it all, casting its beacon 15 miles across the water to warn ships about the shoals. Climb to the top of the 68-foot granite tower, where the light shines every 10 seconds, and take in the panoramic views of Rhode Island Sound.
From here, you can see ships sailing out of the mouth of Narragansett Bay on either side of the island. The view sweeps east as far to Buzzard’s Bay and, on a clear day, Martha’s Vineyard. To the south, Block Island shimmers on the horizon, and far west, the opposite shore extends down to Point Judith. Behind you is green Beavertail state park, all grass and thick vegetation, with trails that snake through the trees and down the cliffs.
In a time of noise and anxiety, Beavertail is a rare peaceful place, where the only sound is the waves and the wind, and the clanging of buoys. Except for a temporary closure in the early months of the pandemic, the Beavertail State Park and the lighthouse has always offered its priceless views to all, for free. The tower opens to the public on May 31.
The park and lighthouse has belonged to everyone for so long that some were startled when the U.S. General Services Administration announced earlier this month that the Coast Guard was giving away Beavertail Lighthouse and the lighthouse at Watch Hill, in Westerly.
Rhode Island owns the 150 or so acre Beavertail state park, named for the shape of its peninsula, but the lighthouse, with its old keepers’ houses and buildings at the end of the island, is the jewel on the ring.
Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, only certain entities can apply to own the lighthouses at no cost — including government agencies, nonprofits, educational agencies or community development organizations, or groups dedicated to parks and recreation and cultural or historic preservation. (The Coast Guard will continue operating the light itself and the fog horn, both of which remain active navigation aids.)
The board members of the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association say they have been preparing for this moment for years. They’ve been working quietly for a while with the state Department of Environmental Management and the town of Jamestown on a plan to apply to own Beavertail Lighthouse.
Two months ago, they worked out a memorandum of understanding that has the state of Rhode Island as the owner of the property, with Jamestown as a supporting partner, said association president Diane Bakley. The museum association will continue to do what they’ve always done: keep up the museum and repair the buildings, using donations, grants, gifts from donors, and sales at the gift shop.
This is the third oldest lighthouse in the country, just behind Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, built in 1716, and Brant Point Light on Nantucket Island, built in 1746.
The first lighthouse at Beavertail was built in 1749 and burned by the British soldiers as they left the Newport area in 1779. The structure was replaced by a rubble tower until 1856, when this granite lighthouse was built, facing the foundation of the original lighthouse.
The lighthouse’s position in United States history was fixed by George Washington, who selected Beavertail as one of a dozen lighthouses necessary to operate in the new country. The museum recently acquired the document signed by Washington.
The lighthouse has been witness to the shipping trades, wars, shipwrecks, and powerful hurricanes. By 1976, the era of lighthouse keepers ended, when the Coast Guard automated all of its beacons and fog horns, and emptied lighthouses across the country.
When the museum association formed in 1993, the Beavertail Lighthouse needed upkeep. The top windows were boarded up because of vandalism, water had gotten in between the granite blocks, and a ladder to the light had broken away.
The volunteers pulled together, repairing what they could, raising money and writing grants to pay for the more expensive needs, such as new distinctive red roofs that match the original color and repairing the granite tower.
The lighthouse has been their labor of love — and they love to share it with visitors. They’ve turned the former homes of the lighthouse keeper and assistant lighthouse keeper into a free, must-see museum of historic artifacts and displays that tell the lighthouse’s history and the stories of its keepers, shipwrecks, and its place in Rhode Island and United States history. The museum is only open for three months in the summer, but in 2019, it had about 33,000 visitors from all over the world.
The staff and docents are all volunteers, some like Linda Warner, whose family ties in Jamestown go back to 1870, back when her great-great uncle Thomas King was a lighthouse keeper at Beavertail. When she was a young mother in the 1960s, she and her husband became friends with the assistant lighthouse keeper and visited often. She said their infant daughter fell asleep to the sound of the fog horn.
“As a boater, it’s a sense of comfort when I see Beavertail. I know I’m almost home,” Bakley said. “It’s majestic.”
Follow 93-year-old Varoujan Karentz as he darts up the 49 steps in the tower, easily climbing the last two ladders to open the hatch and step into the room housing the light.
Along with writing grants and pursuing acquiring the lighthouse for the association, Karentz, a retired Raytheon executive and sailor, has also written books about Rhode Island history. His own book about Beavertail Lighthouse is for sale in the gift shop.
The museum association volunteers have become, in a sense, the new keepers of the lighthouse. If the federal government approves, they will have kept Beavertail Lighthouse in the hands of the public for decades to come — free for all to enjoy.
This place has always been about sea and sky, rooted in our country’s history. And, that’s more than enough.
Beavertail Lighthouse is at the southernmost point of Beavertail Road in Jamestown. The state park is open from sunrise to sunset, and admission and parking are free. The lighthouse museum is also free, though donations are appreciated, and there is a $5 fee to climb the tower. The museum opens Memorial Day weekend, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. The tower opens Monday, May 31. The museum will be open weekends until the middle of June, with a new summer schedule will be determined.