Tuesday, September 20, 2016
September 20, 2016: Rhode Island Histories: Beavertail Lighthouse
[Other than a weeklong series inspired by a visit to Newport’s historic mansion The Breakers, I haven’t had the chance to write much in this space about my neighbor to the south. Well, Little Rhody, that changes this week! Leading up to a special post on some of my many wonderful RI colleagues!]
Three telling moments in the history of the third oldest American lighthouse.
1) Revolutionary shifts: After years of petitions and plans, a lighthouse was finally built on Beavertail Point, at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, in 1749. Less than thirty years later, in December 1776, the British occupied nearby Newport, controlling the city and its region and waterways for nearly three years. When the Continental Army forced the British to retreat in October 1779, they burned the lighthouse nearly to the ground on their way out and took the light with them. In the years after the Revolution the light was rebuilt and –assembled, but this wasn’t the only Revolutionary change, as the 1789 Congressional Lighthouse Act took over federal control of all the nation’s lighthouses and made Newport’s customs collector (and a Signer of the Declaration of Independence), William Ellery, Beavertail’s first superintendent. Each of these shifts reflects how much the Revolution and its military and political aftermaths affected every place and part of the American landscape.
2) Industrialization’s influences: An 1851 report described the original wooden lighthouse as the “worst built tower yet seen,” and by 1856 a new, granite lighthouse with all new illuminating equipment and a fog signal (utilizing compressed air, invented by Connecticut’s Celabon Leeds Daboll, and known as the Daboll trumpet), had been completed (and remains in operation to this day). That process and its details alone suggests the impact of industrialization and its effects on American society and culture. Yet the next few years saw even more innovations, including the 1857 installation of the nation’s first steam whistle and in 1866 another new fog signal, this one based on a hot air process developed by Swedish American engineer and inventor John Ericsson (designer of the famous Civil War ironclad the Monitor). It’s easy to think of lighthouses as relatively unchanging parts of a nation’s landscape, but Beavertail reflects just how much invention and industrialization impacted the light and helped revolutionize the society around it at the same time.
3) The Hurricane of 1938: It certainly has competition, but by most accounts the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 remains the worst storm ever recorded in New England. While lighthouses are of course intended to aid in such conditions, it’s also fair to say that they—and their keepers and inhabitants—are among the most vulnerable and threatened spots in any storm. Carl Chellis, who had been Beavertail keeper for less than a year when the hurricane hit in late September, survived the storm, but his young daughter died when her school bus was thrown by the wind; assistant keeper Edward Donahue leapt into the water to survive a collapsing engine room and was rescued when his son dove in after him. Further out in Narragansett Bay the storm produced an even more tragic result, as Whale Rock Lighthouse was entirely destroyed and its assistant keeper Walter Eberle (a Navy veteran determined to keep the lighthouse working during the storm) killed. I’d like to think that with today’s technologies such tragedies could be averted, and of course lighthouses are now automated rather than kept by hand; but hurricanes, whether in these Beavertail histories or in our own era, remain primal reminders of those things no human advances can control.
Next RI history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from RI (or any state) you’d highlight?