The Light is re-lit: Keepers of the Dutch Island Light

By Sue Maden and Rosemary Enright

John Paul Albert Henry Porter was the first Dutch Island lighthouse keeper appointed under the new Civil Service legislation.

He was also the first and only keeper asked to resign for moral turpitude.

Porter, the son of a lighthouse keeper, joined the Light House Service at the age of 21. Dutch Island was his third station and, from the number of requests for transfer included in his personnel files, he was not happy at the isolated post.

Until 1910, he did his job well enough to receive “good” or “excellent” ratings on his annual reports, although an inspector called the general cleanliness of the lighthouse only “fair.”

In the spring of 1911, Porter received permission to attend to matters relating to his father’s sudden death. When he returned, he accosted his wife with “certain stories of misconduct on her part while at that place [New York] which had been brought to my attention by certain people, who claimed to know such facts to be true. . . . [she] admit that before she married me she lead a fast life in New York for ten years.” She left, supposedly to return to New York.

About the same time, the first recorded communication between the lighthouse and the Army found its way into Porter’s personnel folder: The commandant of Ft. Greble expressed the opinion that Porter was “untrustworthy.”

Although the Light House Service investigated the charge, it didn’t find any reason for action.

For a while, things on the island seemed to improve. In 1912, Porter received commendations on his care of the lighthouse and his rescue of a boat owner and his wife. He received permission to bring his mother to the island and to hire a housekeeper to help her.

But the “housekeeper,” it soon became apparent, was Porter’s lover.

A quick replacement

In February, 1915, the commanding officer at Ft. Adams complained: “For some time Porter has been living in the lighthouse [with] a woman known as Catherine C. Lyal… During the time the woman has been at the Lighthouse with Porter she has had a child and the situation has become notorious. The continuation of this scandal, practically in the garrison, is undesirable.”

A month later, two Light House service inspectors paid a surprise visit to Dutch Island. They arrived at 7:30 in the morning and the keeper answered the door in his pajamas. Porter’s answers to the inspectors’ questions, recorded in a five-page handwritten report, are confused and, in some cases, funny.

“Asked why he kept his clothes in her [the housekeeper’s] room” the inspector recorded, “[he] said he always did as that room is drier. When informed that no other room in house showed signs of having been occupied and asked where he slept, he said he slept in a chair in the dining room.”

The inspector asked for and received Porter’s resignation, which was accepted “not without prejudice,” and Albert Porter disappeared from the Narragansett Bay area, leaving behind a number of unpaid bills.

The Light House Service quickly selected Porter’s replacement – a veteran with 19 years of combined Navy and Lighthouse Bureau experience, who had for five years been applying for transfer to any “one-man shore station” in the northeast. John J. Cook relieved Porter on April 15, 1915.

But, in his first few years, he faced several problems. Porter had not completed required paperwork and Cook was reprimanded. In June, 1917, he fell from a ladder, hurt his back and couldn’t work for three weeks – his wife was approved as his alternate. Then, in February, 1918, at the height of the First World War, the Department of Justice forwarded a report from its Newport office that suspicions were circulating that Cook – who had been born in Germany – was “a man of ‘ultra proGerman’ tendencies.”

J.T. Yates, the lighthouse inspector, stood by his man, responding that Cook was a Navy veteran of the Spanish American War and had 12 years with the Bureau of Lighthouses. He concluded, “It does not seem to be just to cast a reflection as to an employee’s loyalty without furnishing evidence of information to justify suspicion.”

Cook worked closely with the military at Ft. Greble. He received permission to shop at the commissary. The post surgeon took care of him on several occasions. In the spring of 1918, he wrote to ask permission for men from the fort to plant a garden on lighthouse grounds.

His close relations with the post stood him in good stead when a brush fire threatened the lighthouse in 1923 and a soldier from the fort rushed to extinguish the fire.

Cook retired on Aug. 17, 1927, and settled in Jamestown. He built a house on Narragansett Avenue, just west of North Main Road, for himself and his wife – they had no children. He died in 1930. His widow, Martha Cook, continued to live in Jamestown until her death in 1969.

Serenity and isolation

Cook’s retirement brought John Paul, previously of Fall River’s Borden Flats Light, to Dutch Island with his three sons. In the late 1920s, the military usefulness of Ft. Greble declined, and Paul’s son, Louis, remembered both the serenity and isolation of the post.

In order to shop, Paul hoisted a flag to intercept the Jamestown- Saunderstown ferry. On these shopping trips, he would buy huge quantities of food, sometimes a whole side of beef. He also raised vegetables and kept a flock of ducks. Fish from the bay also provided food for the station — Paul would, according to his son, catch a “bushel of blackfish” before breakfast.

Like his predecessor, Paul retired to Jamestown.

The next keeper of the Dutch Island Light, John D. Davies, was – like others before him – the son of a lighthouse keeper. His father had been keeper of the Rosses Point Light in County Sligo, Ireland. Davies immigrated to the U.S. in 1894, when he was 25 years old, and joined the Lighthouse Service in 1900.

When Davies retired after 33 years in the Light House Service, including two years at Dutch Island, he – like almost all 20th century keepers of the Dutch Island light – had difficulties resolving the amount of his pension.

Because housing was provided on Dutch Island, his salary had been reduced by a housing allowance. The housing allowance was supposed to be added into gross pay in the calculation of his pension. For many years, it was not.

Davies’ successor, Stanley Gunderson, tended the Dutch Island light from July 1934 to March 1935, although his name is often missing from a list of the keepers. Gunderson was the son of the lighthouse keeper at Stage Harbor Light near Chatham, Mass. Following his father’s suicide in 1918 and his own discharge from the army, Gunderson took over as keeper there. He stayed at Stage Harbor Light until it was decommissioned in 1933.

It was the middle of the Great Depression, and Gunderson was bitter about the closing of Stage Harbor, complaining to the Boston Post: “To save money they put in something that is far more expensive and less reliable and all that economy and put another employee on the unemployment list. Rather a poor way to reduce unemployment and surely no help toward better times.”

As a World War I veteran, he was given preference for those jobs that did arise and during the following year, he took several short-term positions with which he was very unhappy.

When Davies’ departure brought the opening at Dutch Island, Gunderson accepted the appointment. Nine months later, he resigned, saying, “My mother’s rapidly failing heath makes it imperative that she live ashore . . . I also have been in poor health [because of] the three months I served at Great Point Lt. Sta. [Nantucket] under the extremely disagreeable conditions existing there.”

The last keeper

While Gunderson’s successor stayed on the island almost twice as long as his predecessor, William C. Anderson left no mark of his tenure. He retired June 30, 1936, and was followed by the last keeper of the Dutch Island Light, Ernest Homer Stacey.

Stacey joined the Lighthouse Service in early 1931, at the age of 23. He was immediately sent to Whale Rock Light Station in Narragansett Bay, west of Beavertail, as the assistant keeper.

After more than four years at Whale Rock, he was transferred to Duxbury Pier Light Station near Plymouth, Mass., but within the year, he returned to Narragansett Bay as keeper of the Dutch Island light.

Two years later, R.I. was hit by its most violent storm in more than 100 years: The hurricane of Sept. 21, 1938.

The assistant keeper at Whale Rock Light – Stacey’s former post – died when the light was swept away in the storm. Dutch Island, four miles up the bay, escaped with relatively little damage, but from accounts of the storm, it must have been a harrowing day on the little island.

Despite the inauspicious beginning, Stacey, according to members of his family, loved his tour on Dutch Island.

On his arrival on the island, he felt “he had come home” and he would spend hours sitting on the rocks looking out over the bay. He loved to fish and never came home empty–handed.

The same serenity did not extend to his family.

His wife, Dot, complained of the weather, the isolation, her husband’s child-like fascination with the light – and a diet of too much fish. Their young son, Robert, tired of rowing to school every day and missing many days because of rough weather, stayed with his grandmother during the winter months.

Soon after Stacey’s arrival, the army began the active dismantling of the virtually abandoned fort to the north of the lighthouse. The West Passage was now protected by more easily supported installations at Saunderstown and Jamestown.

Stacey remained as keeper at Dutch Island throughout World War II, though his status changed to “military” and his title to “Boatswain’s Mate, second class” as the conflict began.

Following the war, the automation of the lighthouses, so bitterly protested by Gunderson 15 years earlier, continued and Dutch Island was the first light in post-war R.I. to be automated.

In February, 1947, the Coast Guard completed the installation of the automated equipment and Ernest Stacey and his family left the island.

The U.S. Army, having previously removed the useful armaments and declared the remaining guns “salvage,” discontinued the post on Dutch Island in December of the same year.

No one has made his home on the island since.

The light is re-lit

For 10 years, Dutch Island was ignored while weather and vandalism continued to destroy the military complex and the keeper’s quarters. In 1958, the military deeded its portion of the island to the state “for the conservation of wildlife.”

In 1960, the Coast Guard decided that the keeper’s home and outbuildings were beyond repair and demolished them. Two years later, it transferred the property, except for the lighthouse proper, to the state.

In 1972 and again in 1977, the Coast Guard proposed discontinuing the light. Vandals had smashed doors, stolen equipment and even poured liquid steel into a lock. The site was too expensive to maintain.

The Dutch Island Light was offi cially discontinued in 1979, replaced by offshore buoys.

Slowly, natural vegetation obscured the remnants of human occupation of the island. The lighthouse, without any protection or repair from the actions of vandals and the elements, decayed. But in 2000, a group of citizens formed the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society (DILS) to work to restore the lighthouse.

After years of fund-raising and petitions for permission to proceed, the light in the restored lighthouse was re-lit on Nov. 18, 2007.

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