Digest>Archives> April 2010

1749 Beavertail Lighthouse Rediscovered

By Varoujan Karentz


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Base of original tower with the current ...

Called both, “Harrison’s Light” after the designer Peter Harrison and “Newport Light” before it came better know as “Beaver Tail Light” and ultimately “Beavertail Light,” America’s 3rd oldest light located on Conanicut Island in Rhode Island after 260 years has now a new distinction of being an “octagonal” shaped structure.

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The capped foundation of Rhode Island’s 1749 ...

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This 1798 engraving by William Hamlin shows the ...

The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association (BLMA) under a partial grant from the National Trust for Historic Places unearthed this new information about the light never previously known.

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The Harrison or first Beavertail Lighthouse ...

The original foundation had been covered over in 1856 when the present existing tower was built nearby. It was then forgotten for the next 82 years until uncovered by the Great Hurricane of 1938. Following the hurricane, during World War II a concrete cap was poured over the ruin and used by the U.S. Army Coast Artillery for mounting optical rangefinders, search lights and a portable machine gun mount.

Under a contract to perform non-evasive underground radar imaging of the foundation ruin to help determine possible options to preserve the 1749 artifact, Dan Lynch of Soil Sight LLC, Providence, RI made an astounding discovery. On the first day of his observations, 6 September 2008 he recognized the difference between the post 1938 hurricane circular concrete cap and the stone formations of the ruin underneath the concrete cap as being a flat sided, 8 sector structure.

The foundation base and the first light built in 1749, has always been considered to be round or circular in shape. It is now found to be “octagonal.” Historians and casual observers have been misled by early island 18th century “Proprietor’s Records” and the early description by “Dr. William Douglas,” who stated construction details of the base of the original light to be; “Diameter at base is 24 feet in diameter and at the Top 13 Feet.” The height dimension from the ground to the Cornice was 58 ft and the gallery above containing the lantern was “about 11 feet high and 8 feet in diameter.” Multi-sided structures with definitive edges in circular configurations are often described with a “diameter” reference. In the case of the 1749 Beavertail Light, no early or contemporary historian, architect nor engineer accurately noted its physical shape. Even the small model of the 1749 light displayed in the BLMA museum depicting a round wooden tower is in error.

This first octagonal shaped light burned down, (or up as may be the case) on July 23, 1753, four years after it was constructed. A second light was constructed in the same year on top of the existing octagonal stone and lime mortar foundation, but this light was round, made of stone and brick taken from “Fort George” on “Goat Island.” Brick and stone construction easily conforms to conical or circular shape with added strength since it is void of seams. As far as is known, this round circular structure remained standing for 103 years until the present granite tower was completed in 1856.

The only known images of the light tower prior to 1856 consist of two sketches, one drawn in 1798 and the other in 1817, plus an undated painting completed sometime in the 1830 -1850 period. Both sketches were drawn after the 1753 fire and show a round structure. The third image, the painting, appears to be a square or 4 sided structure which raises the question of its authenticity as to it being Beavertail Light.

Lynch’s findings support a new supposition that indeed, the first light was not only built on an octagonal base but the entire structure above it was octagonal as well.

It is known that first light was constructed of wood as stated in the Rhode Island “General Assembly Record” of 1749. The easiest and most practical way to build a wooden lighthouse is with planks or board sheathing fastened to a frame. Not curved or steam bent planks but straight boards nailed or pegged to vertical joists as were most of homes in Colonial New England, Newport and Jamestown. It could also be possible that each of the eight sides were built flat on the ground and raised. Each of its 8 sides, would have been approximately 9 feet ( 3.1416 x 24 ft dia. = 75.3 ft in circumference divided by 8 sides = 9. 24 ft) wide at the base and the top 5 feet in width since we also know that the lantern room was 13 feet in diameter. (3.1416 x 13 ft diameter =40.8 ft. divided by 8 sides = 5.1ft). Nearly every free standing light tower constructed of wood reflects a multi-sided flat faced structure wide at its based and tapered at its top. The first light built at Pt. Judith in 1809 was a wooden octagonal tower in similar shape adding even more credence that Beavertail, its predecessor of 60 years, was built octagonal.

Certainly more research is needed to find factual evidence of the first tower’s shape added to the mystery of why, over a 102 year period only 2 vague sketches and 1 questionable painting exist of the second tower (1749-1856), at a time when photography in America during its later period was practiced and available.

In more modern times, the present 153 year old third Beavertail light and its structures with its easy public accessibility and its panoramic venue has been considered the most photographed and most painted venue in Rhode Island. It is difficult to believe that during its 102 year existence, the second tower never had the same appeal. While it is unlikely that a drawing of the first light will ever surface, somewhere, someplace there must be an accurate image of the second tower. If you can help solve the mystery contact the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum at P.O. Box 83, Jamestown, RI 02835 or visit their web site at www.BeavertailLight.org.

This story appeared in the April 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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