History of the Beavertail Lighthouse


1657 Conanicut Island was purchased from the Narragansett Indians by a group of settlers from Newport.
1712 The first official request for a permanent navigational aid (a lighthouse) was recorded in the documents of the Newport Town Meeting.
1731 To raise funds for lighthouse construction, the first tariff was placed on imported and exported cargo passing through Newport (10 shillings per ton foreign; 18 shillings per ton local).
1749 In February, the following appeared in the Newport Town Record:

"A committee was appointed to build a Lighthouse at Beavertail on the Island of Jamestown, alias Conanicut, as there appears a great necessity for a lighthouse as several misfortunes have happened lately for want of a light."

Construction of the first lighthouse, the third in the colonies, began in May and ended in September. Peter Harrison was the architect. The lighthouse was constructed of wood. The tower was 58 feet high to cornice with an 11-foot lantern on top. Abel Franklin was appointed the first keeper.

1753 The wooden lighthouse was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original. Stones from Goat Island were used as building materials. The foundation is visible today 100 feet in front of the present light tower. Abel Franklin manned his post during construction, warning ships with a hand held lantern.
1779 British soldiers retreating from Newport burned the tower and removed the lighting equipment, leaving the beacon darkened for the rest of the Revolution.
1783 Repair of the lighthouse was completed. United States Congress established its authority over the nation's twelve lighthouses. Not until 1793 did the Rhode Island General Assembly agree to transfer Beavertail Light to the Federal Government.
1817 The beacon was lit with manufactured gas for one year in an experiment conducted by Newport inventor David Melville. Despite the cleaner, brighter flame produced by gas, the backers of whale oil persuaded the Federal Government to end its support for this competing form of fuel.
1852 United States Lighthouse Board was established, and the agency quickly set about creating a modern lighthouse system.
1856 A new lighthouse was constructed to replace the deteriorating 1753 structure. The new one measured 10 feet square, and 64 feet to the beacon. The new optic was a third-order Fresnel lens imported from France, a sparkling beehive of glass similar to that now housed in the Museum. The old tower was removed and on its foundation was built a fog-whistle house.
1857 The first in a series of experiments involving fog-warning devices took place at Beavertail. A Daboll "Fog Trumpet" -- driven by compressed air -- was tested. This was followed by the installation of the first steam powered foghorn in 1857. Several other "firsts" in foghorn equipment were tested at Beavertail over the next 40 years.
1898 A dwelling was added to house an assistant keeper, who helped with fog signal duties. This house now serves as the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum.
1931 The first electric light beacon was installed during the tenure of Captain George T. Manders, who served as keeper for 24 years.
1938 The Great Hurricane of 1938 exposed the foundation of the original lighthouse, 100 feet in front of the present light. Hidden by the fog whistle building, it had long been forgotten.
1939 The Bureau of Lighthouses -- which in 1910 had replaced the Lighthouse Board -- relinquished its responsibilities for navigational aids to the United States Coast Guard, which continues these duties today.
1972 The beacon was automated, part of a program which in 1989 ended the profession of lighthouse keeping in the United States (except for the Boston Light). Dominic Turillo was the last keeper to serve at Beavertail.
1983 The Rhode Island Parks Association began restoring the deteriorating Assistant Keeper's House as a lighthouse museum.
1989 The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum was opened, the result of a joint effort by the Rhode Island Parks Association, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Town of Jamestown, and the United States Coast Guard.
1991 The fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed and replaced by a rotating beacon. This lens is now displayed in the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum.

 

See also the fine history page from Jeremy D'Entremont.

History with some views -3D animation

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The Fresnel Lens at Beavertail
In early times, people built bonfires or set blazing torches along the shoreline to alert sailors to approaching dangers and their location. With the advent of lighthouses, ground-level warnings were replaced by beacons, illuminated with whale oil or lard. The Keeper not only made sure that the lamp was lit, but the smoke residue required continuously cleaning of the lenses so that the flame could be seen far out to sea.

In 1748, Georges de Buffon began to re-design the expensive, cumbersome lens; in 1822, a French Physicist named Augustin Fresnel invented a less- expensive, lightweight lens. An open flame or a flame with reflectors behind it lost up to 83% of its light. His invention dramatically retained all but 17% of its light. Frensel lenses became the # 1 system along the seacoasts of Europe and America.

Seven types, or "orders" of the Frensel lens were created; each shaped like a beehive with a light m the center. The curved, concentrate rings of glass prisms were designed to " bend " the light into a very narrow beam which could easily cast its light 20 or more miles to the horizon.

Three "large" orders were developed for use along seacoasts around the world. A three-and-a-half order was used mostly in the Great Lakes. The smaller orders were used for harbors or bay lights.

The original 3rd Order Fresnel lens imported from France in 1856 was replaced with a smaller, 3" Order lens in 1907. In 1991 an automated rotating beacon was installed in its place. Thus, the Fresnel lens now on display at the Museum serves as a constant reminder that it honorably served "the men who go down to the sea in ships."

PBS has a movie of how a Fresnel lens works.

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