At Dutch Island, Ghosts of Past Settlements

July 8, 2010
By Arline A. Fleming

NORTH KINGSTOWN — Scott Chapin spent a long-ago summer day living what some might consider a Hardy Boy’s adventure on Dutch Island – or depending upon how you look at it, a “Twilight Zone” episode.

It was during his 1960s boyhood, when summers on the Saunderstown shoreline were spent outdoors and local children would wake each morning looking Dutch Island square in the face. Separated from the shore by a ribbon of Narragansett Bay, Dutch Island’s 81 acres seemed close enough to field a tennis ball whacked from any Saunderstown front yard, and it was often the site of family picnics and campouts.

“It was like one big playground,” said Whit Hill, 46, a lifelong summer Saunderstown resident (year-round since 1982) who recalled casual excursions to Dutch Island that were as much a part of his summer as the Fourth of July.

 It was sometimes called Treasure Island partly for the artifacts easily uncovered, and partly for the novel fantasy of having an uncivilized island available to them, just a boat ride away.

So on the day that Scott Chapin, 56, of South Kingstown went there for one of his many boyhood adventures, it was a time of climbing into ancient earthen tunnels left over from the days when Dutch Island housed an active military installation called Fort Greble.

The fort once had barracks, a hospital, a post office, a fire station, stables, bakery and stately officer’s quarters, and underground there were cisterns and trenches, some possibly dating to the Civil War.

The military personnel had long since departed, but their ghosts remained in the minds of young boys, their attraction to Dutch Island resting as much in what it didn’t have – adults – as in what it did: traces of forts and garrisons, bullets and gun mounts.

Chapin and two other Saunderstown boys didn’t have computerized games with on-screen action figures and sound effects during their boyhood.

They didn’t need them. They had the real thing.

Dutch Island Lighthouse, the most visible landmark on the island, was restored and relit in 2007. (Photo by Michael Derr) “There were these manhole covers that looked like giant flying saucers,” Chapin recalled, referring to cisterns that held water. They’d lift up the covers and climb down metal ladders into total darkness. Then they’d shout and listen to their own voices echo off the cool, black walls, their only source of light coming from the hole they entered.

On this particular day, as Chapin recalls, when the three boys had enough of listening to themselves and were ready to move on to another island adventure, they started back up the ladder. Scott watched his two friends climb ahead of him.

He was the last one, alone, he thought, down in the blackness. “Just as I started to go up the ladder, someone grabbed my ankle, and I mean grabbed it.”

Screaming and scrambling ensued, until laughter came from someone in a wetsuit who had been hiding in the island basement.

“He saw us coming,” Chapin recalled of that day, and the warped stranger decided to play a trick on these boys who had come to the overgrown island where they felt comfortable and carefree enough not to really expect anything to be lurking in the darkness.

“We’d go off and your mom would just say ‘Don’t fall in a manhole,’ ” recalled Marjorie A. Johnston, a lifelong summer resident of Saunderstown.

“It wasn’t nearly as overgrown as it is now,” added Chapin.

But that was summer almost four decades ago, and according to Larry Mouradjian, associate director for natural resources at the state Department of Environmental Management, the island is off-limits to the general public, because of the liability presented by the very cisterns Chapin and his friends played in.

“We get calls from people saying they see people on the island all the time, but the official policy of the department is that there is no trespassing,” he said, though lighthouse workers and the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society have been allowed on the island to conduct repairs. The island is managed by DEM and is part of Jamestown.

Mouradjian said things could change in the future, especially with continued interest in the restored lighthouse, but the entire island would need to be addressed in terms of safety and stabilization.

Abcore Restoration owner Keith Lescarbeau of Narragansett has spent many hours on Dutch Island working on the lighthouse, and when he and his crew had to approach the island from the opposite end due to certain weather conditions, he also has walked it.

“It’s actually kind of eerie,” Lescarbeau said. “There’s a whole footprint of what was there. Foundations, posts of fencing, steps, pathways to steps, a water tower, bunkers.”

Though overgrown, the island still has some field areas reminiscent of the former encampment and marching areas.

“It’s hard to believe it went from what it was to nothing at all,” Lescarbeau said, adding that it reminds him of a lost civilization, “like someone just shut the lights off and left.”

He described Dutch Island as being “beautiful, though you have to squint sometimes” to visualize its possibilities.

Looking out from the Chapin family’s summer cottage, Dutch Island appears primitive and wild, apart from the lighthouse recently saved by the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society to which Chapin and Johnston and scores of other local residents belong to and support.

The first lighthouse went up on Dutch Island in 1827, but it was eventually demolished. The present structure, which is 42 feet tall, was built in 1857 and served through the Civil War. The lighthouse has undergone more than $250,000 in restoration during the past decade, with a $120,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation and $135,000 raised by the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society.

 It had been abandoned and vandalized since it was discontinued by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1979, replaced by offshore buoys. A keeper’s cottage went down in the 1960s, though traces of its foundation remain.

 In 2007, the Coast Guard approved a request by the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society, allowing it to install a battery-powered solar-charged light that stays lit. The original Fresnel lens was moved to Maine.

Narragansett’s Abcore Restoration, led by Lescarbeau, painted the structure, removed years of guano, replaced floors and stairwells and erased graffiti just prior to the 2007 lighting. Fundraising events planned by the all-volunteer Society continue, including one planned for later this summer, on Aug. 13.

But the recorded island’s history pre-dates that first 1827 lighthouse. According to the Images of America book, “Dutch Island and Fort Greble” by Walter K. Schroder of Jamestown, the island was originally known as Quetenis Island. Schroder writes that the site was sold to the Dutch West India Co. by the Narragansett Indians around 1636.

“They used the area as a trading post for approximately twenty years,” he wrote.

But starting with the Civil War, the island served the federal government and the state as a coastal defense in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay.

Photos in his book show beautiful houses and buildings with slate roofs, barracks the size of the large hotels, and soldiers lined up in crisp uniforms and white gloves.

The terrain in those old photographs show clipped grass and thinned out trees.

“It’s so overgrown now, you’d need a machete to get through,” said Chapin, and ticks are said to be abundant. He recalled pulling ticks off his arms and legs as a kid with the thought, “Big deal, it’s a tick,” before Lyme disease was an issue.

Johnston says parents sent their children off to Dutch Island with expectations of being responsible, and children left for the island with the ability to handle a sailboat and their own sharp imaginations.

With all that, and a packed lunch, said Johnston in earnest: “What was there to be afraid of?”

A Whole New Light

November 19, 2007
By Arline A. Fleming

A cannon sounded, the countdown began, and a little after 7 last night, the 1857 Dutch Island Lighthouse light blinked on for the first time in more than two decades.

 Two seconds on, four seconds off, the six-second cycle beamed on, and will stay on, according to Dutch Island Lighthouse Society director Scott Chapin, “24/7, 365 days a year.”

“This is great, it’s very special to everyone here,” Chapin said. Earlier in the day, he helped set up the solar-powered light in the structure’s lantern room, a major milestone for the tower that had been deteriorating for decades.

Through the efforts of the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society, years of fundraising brought the all-volunteer group to the point last night, with the restoration finished, and the go-ahead obtained from the Coast Guard, where members were ready to light the light once again.

 Contractors have been on site since August, cleaning up the graffiti-smeared building at the southern tip of the 81-acre Dutch Island, which sits in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay and is part of Jamestown. With the work complete, an outdoor celebration was held in the torch-lit Saunderstown front yard of the Rhein family, which faces the 150-year-old lighthouse.

Those gathered were warmed by big hopes and cups of hot cider. More than 50 people on the Saunderstown side of the light waited in brisk temperatures to see the red beacon flash once again.

Shouts of “It’s on! Unbelievable,” let out, but perhaps no one was as excited as Shirley Sheldon to see the light shine again, though she was watching from indoors by way of computer magic. The Saunderstown artist, 84, tuned in with the help of a Web-cam set up especially for her, installed so she could hear the countdown and declare “Light the light!” which she gladly did.

The cheers of those standing alongside the shoreline marked the end of one chapter of work in support of the historic structure. Money was raised in ways big and small, from the sale of T-shirts to applying for and obtaining grants to get this seaside structure shipshape once again.

“I like seeing things get fixed rather than just tossed away,” said neighbor Robin Squibb, who spent many of her childhood days sailing to Dutch Island, scrambling around the lighthouse.

“We used to call it Treasure Island,” recalled light the lighthouse party host Jane Rhein. “It was magical.”

The Dutch Island Lighthouse has its own history among Rhode Island’s two-dozen plus lighthouses, a history the lighthouse society is determined to maintain.

With renovations already in progress, the society received initial approval from the Coast Guard’s Boston district in late September to install a flashing light. The light had been decommissioned in 1979.

The addition of the light itself was supported by an anonymous donation, Chapin said.

Abcore Restoration of Narragansett began work on the 42-foot tower in mid-August. Financing for the work came from the $135,000 raised by the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society, and a $120,000 grant from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. Additional money will be needed to maintain the structure, Chapin said, so while the light shines, the work is far from over.

Restoration has included interior and exterior repairs to the stucco and brick structure, guano removal, replacement of floors and metal work, and the repair of interior stairs. Graffiti and rust have been covered over, and the tower now has a white-colored stucco finish.

The finishing elements are expected to be completed this week, said Keith Lescarbeau, Abcore Restoration owner, who, after spending more than three months at the lighthouse, sees it as being “very, very sound.”

Lescarbeau and his crew have been involved in the restoration of five lighthouses, each structure having its own problems and challenges.

“It takes twice as long to do anything,” he said last week from the landing craft he docks against rocks and old tires at the eastern side of Dutch Island.

When he first approached the project, he said the lighthouse “was all green and mossy looking,” and suffered damage not just from the elements, but also from vandals. Now, with the original lantern room painted an elegant black and trimmed with bronze, and the stucco on the four-sided tower (“it took two of us nine days,” Lescarbeau said of that process), the lighthouse stands out, he said, rather than sinking into the landscape.

Windows have been secured with black steel panels, as has the door.

Standing alongside the lantern house at the structure’s highest point, Lescarbeau pointed out “little details no one will ever see,” such as the four corners “which were all broken. We took the best corner to Cumberland Foundry to be reconstructed.”

Lescarbeau admired them, looking a little crestfallen that the finish work will mostly be admired by seagulls.

At the moment, the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society is looking towards keeping what it has in tip-top condition, and keeping it lit, which it was, officially, last night, when Chapin’s 16-year-old son, Dannel, removed a black covering from the light that had been turned on earlier in the day, allowing it to shine through the darkness once more.

Dutch Island Lighthouse Shines for Mariners

November 21, 2007
By Sam Bari

An early photo of the Dutch Island Light. A dozen cars and twice as many people lined the shore at Fort Getty on the Jamestown side of Dutch Island last Saturday night. All eyes were focused on the freshly painted Dutch Island Lighthouse tower that was bathed in white light. At approximately 7:18 p.m., a red light blinked 42-feet above ground atop the tower.

A cheer went up from the small crowd. Across the water on the Saunderstown side, more than fifty of their counterparts also expressed their enthusiasm. Four seconds later, the light blinked again for two seconds. The light in the 1857 Dutch Island Lighthouse had completed its first cycle in more than 28-years, inspiring more cheers and praise from the groups celebrating the long-awaited return of the historical beacon.

Although the light was scheduled to be turned on at 7 p.m., “We were a few minutes late because we were waiting for Macy Webster’s sons to bring down their cannon for the countdown,” Dutch Island Lighthouse Society director Scott Chapin said. “Now it will stay on every night, 24/7, 365 days a year,” he continued. Webster was a much-loved state representative in the 1960s and had also served on the planning commission.

Although Shirley Sheldon was not at the site, nobody was more excited or enthusiastic than the renowned, 84-year-old Saunderstown artist who watched from indoors via a computer camera set up exclusively for her. She was asked to make the declaration to “Light the light,” which she did with gusto after listening to the countdown.

Shouts of “Yes!” “This is great!” and “Fantastic!” were heard on both sides of the water.

Chapin helped set up the solarpowered light in the lantern room on Saturday afternoon. After the countdown, Chapin’s 16-year-old son, Dannel, removed a black covering to reveal the light that had been turned on earlier in the day.

Dutch Island Lighthouse Society members had much to cheer about. The lighting of the beacon was a major milestone in their efforts to restore the structure to its original glory.

Although they settled for a red blinking light instead of a turning beacon shining through a Fresnel lens, society members were happy to have the navigational aid in place to guide mariners through a potentially dangerous passage. The blinking red light supports the navigational rule “red right returning,” letting boat operators know to keep the light to their starboard side when going up the bay in the West Passage.

Seeing the magnificent restoration makes it difficult to believe that little more than three months ago, the proud structure at the southern tip of Dutch Island was little more than a rusted, deteriorated shell of a bygone beacon that withstood the perils of time and elements.

After years of fund-raising, through donations, the sale of T-shirts, and applying for government grants, the faithful and diligent society members raised more than $135,000 with an additional $120,000 in a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. The light itself was made possible by a contribution from an anonymous donor.

“We’re off to a great start,” Chapin said, “but we still have a long way to go.” Their goal is to raise $200,000 to maintain the structure and keep the lamp lit for mariners in perpetuity, Chapin said.

Richard Ventrone, Jr., an architect from Newport Collaborative Architects, designed the lighthouse exterior to restore the structure and reflect its historic appearance. Olga Bachilova, director of preservation at NCA worked closely with Keith Lescarbeau, owner of Abcore Restoration, the contracting company awarded the restoration project. After spending more than three months at the lighthouse, Lescarbeau said that he sees it as being “very, very sound.”

The restoration included interior and exterior repairs, removal of years of guano deposits, replacement of floors and metal work, and the repair of interior stairs. Graffiti and rust stains have been painted over, and the tower now has a white, stucco finish. The pump house next to the tower has also been restored and painted.

Dutch Island is Lescarbeau’s fifth lighthouse rebuilding project in the last five years. A seasoned historic restoration specialist for 30 years, Lescarbeau has woven his magic at notable sites like Plum Beach Light and Rose Island. The 16-inch walls on the bottom and 1-foot thick walls on top of the Dutch Island tower made it a good bet for rebuilding, he said.

Now that the first phase of restoration is completed, a blessing has been received from the Coast Guard, and the light has been lit, DILS members can bask in the light of the sweet glow of success.

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.

The Society is Formed

by Peter Randall, MD

In May of 2000, the lighthouse was visited by the DILS Board and Chris Powell of the RI Dept. of Environmental Management (which had jurisdiction over the island). In June of 2000, Ginger Hesse and Roberta Randall of the RI State Historic Preservation Office also visited the lighthouse. They assessed the building to be in need of extensive repairs, but basically very sound, and they named it an Historic Building. That summer, it was discovered that the RI Dept. of Transportation (RIDOT) had an Enhancement Program that was interested in the preservation of historic places and the enhancement of public lands. Specifically, they were interested in the Dutch Island lighthouse as an important aid to navigation, not only in the main channel of West Passage, but also as the entrance to Dutch Harbor. In September of 2000, the building was inspected by Marty Nally of the Campbell Construction Group, which had been involved in the restoration of a number of New England lighthouses. They agreed that the building was basically sound and estimated that its restoration, including the installation of a functioning light, would cost about $106,000. Immediately an application was filed by DILS for funds for restoration and reactivation with an estimated cost of $120,000, and the application was “accepted”. It took another 7 years to complete all the many details of design, planning, restoration and activation along with endless encounters with “red tape.”

While the grant request was for more than the estimated cost, it was realized that costs usually increase and also that about 85% of the money granted by RIDOT were Federal dollars and that they were not always forthcoming. Furthermore, applications and specifications had to fit both Federal and State requirements which differed. 

To start the long process of raising sufficient funds, it was decided to charge dues for membership in the Society, set at $25 for families and $15 for individuals. 

On March 15, 2001, at the urging of Shirley Sheldon, an open meeting was held in the Chapel of St. John’s in Saunderstown. About 50 people attended. Jim Gomes of Scituate, RI brought a large 42” model of the lighthouse that he had painstakingly built to scale inside and out, using approximately 2,242 handcrafted tiny bricks. The present lighthouse you may remember is 42 feet high. Shirley Sheldon made door prizes for everyone attending. According to the minutes, “…the audience was very enthusiastic and several signed up to be on committees for fundraising, merchandising, publicity, history, newsletters, DEM (Department of Environmental Management) contacts and membership.”

In June 2001, another similar fundraiser was held in the Jamestown Philomenian Library with presentations by DILS Board members, on the history of the lighthouse. Jim Gomes brought his lighthouse model again and gave a presentation about its construction. This model remained in the library for quite some time. At this library meeting, an unidentified man surprised the group by returning the original 250mm lighthouse lens that had been in his possession for about 20 years. The anonymous benefactor had been concerned about ongoing vandalism that he saw at the lighthouse and removed the lens from the tower for safekeeping after the lighthouse was abandoned and darkened. It is now on display at the American Lighthouse Foundation Museum in Wells, Maine.

Another wonderful surprise was a gift of $1,350 from Ron Foster and Jim Streeter of the New England Lighthouse Lovers Society (NELLS) for the construction of a secure and safe door on the Dutch Island Lighthouse.  This was a much appreciated boost to the early fundraising efforts and put to good use as designated. NELLS had been instrumental in the reconstruction and restoration of several lighthouses in Connecticut and Ron and Jim were consultants to our Board for several years.

Awareness of the mission of DILS was strengthened by several more fundraisers which were held in those early years. One was at the Saunderstown Yacht Club, dubbed “Bal Musette” with a French theme and exceptional music by the Café Accordion from Minnesota, thanks to the ingenuity of Kate Vivian of The Towers in Narragansett, RI. The dancing for young and old went well into the night. 

Another wonderful party and fundraiser was held in Saunderstown in 2001. There were libations and refreshments in the garden and again with musical entertainment thanks to Kate Vivian. Ken Newman joined the Board in 2002. Ken held two wonderful fundraisers at his home in Jamestown, with the Dutch Island Lighthouse barely visible across the harbor. He obtained support from 17 merchants and 2 caterers from Jamestown and a cadre of high school boys to help with the parking. At the last of these two events, we were serenaded by “Ye Mariners All” an excellent vocal group. 

In 2003 a new structure for the Board of Directors was approved establishing a Board that included more people in the directing of the Society.  The new Board was formed with a Chairman, First Vice-Chairman, Second Vice-Chairman, Corresponding Secretary, Recording Secretary, Treasurer, and three Members-at-Large.

From Settlement to World War II

Little “Dutch” Island, comprising 81 acres, is located in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay between Jamestown and Saunderstown, RI. Originally it was called “Quetenis” by the Narragansett Indians who sold it to the Dutch West Indian Company about 1636. The Dutch from New Amsterdam (later New York) used the island as a safe place to trade their goods to the Indians for meat, fish and furs.  Later the English settlers of Rhode Island used the island to graze sheep.2

For many years it was fortified to protect the West Passage from sea invasion. It is not known whether this included the Revolutionary war era when the Conanicut Battery was activated further south on the western shore of Conanicut (Jamestown) Island. Dutch Island was later heavily fortified with massive concrete gun emplacements. These were started with large granite stone structures near the southern end of the island during the Civil War. The greatest building was during the Spanish American war and World War I.  At one time there was a battery of 25-ton cannon which used a 50-pound charge of black powder to fire a 300-pound cannon ball as far as 3 miles. (2)

There were similar fortifications at Fort Getty on Conanicut near the present Recreational Vehicle Camp and at Fort Kearny near South Ferry on the west shore. The fort on Dutch Island was called Fort Greble after Lt. Jon T. Greble who was one of the first officers killed in the Civil War. It included 3 sizeable brick homes for officers and many other frame buildings for families, a hospital, supplies, stables and a bakery, etc. Photographs taken at that time showed almost no trees. (2)

Dutch Island was used for National Guard training up to World War II. It housed as many as 495 officers and men (2).

In 1825, the U.S. Government bought 6 acres on the southern tip of the island with the purpose of establishing a “light station”. The first tower was built in 1826 using native stone from the island. It was 30 feet tall.  One of the first keepers was Robert Dennis, whose father had fought in the Revolution and who was also present at the Boston Tea Party. Dennis was 78 years old when he became keeper.   His son, Robert, took the keeper position shortly after his father died.

According to Jeremy D’Entremont (a member of the first Board of Directors of the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society), the lighthouse and the Keeper’s House in the mid-1800’s were described as “the worst construction of any in the state”, and the lantern was described as “wretched” (3).

In 1857, the old tower and the Keeper’s House were demolished and replaced by the present 42-foot brick tower and a four-room Keeper’s House. The basic structure of this tower was described in 2007 by consulting engineers’ inspection as still being “very sound”. The cost of these two structures in the 1850’s was $4,000, and included a “fourth-order” Fresnel lens and a fixed white light. In 1878, a fog bell was installed on the west side of the tower to be activated by a clockwork mechanism (3).

In 1924, a flashing red light was installed. Irving Sheldon of Saunderstown wrote that when he was about 11 years old (in the 1930’s), he rowed over to the Lighthouse from Saunderstown to pay a visit to the keeper. He was cordially met by the Keeper John Paul and shown around – including a climb up to the light where Irving described the big heavy Fresnel lens as being floated on a tub of mercury, so it could rotate without friction. The light at that time was lit with kerosene. He also remembers a very big weight on pulleys that ran the mechanism that rotated the lens. It hung in the tower and had to be pulled up “like the weights on a grandfather clock” (1).

John Paul was one of the last Keepers (1929-1931) and his son Louis remembered that this father kept a vegetable garden and a flock of ducks. He said that the fishing off the rocks was “excellent” and that his father would catch “…a bushel of blackfish before breakfast.” He would buy a whole side of beef in Jamestown or Saunderstown, salt it thoroughly and keep if for prolonged use (3).

In 1943, the light was automated and lit by electricity, as a flashing red beacon. In 1947, the military left the Island and in 1950 the Keeper’s House was demolished because of vandalism and because toadstools and moss were growing in the house (3).


(1) Irving C. Sheldon, Saunderstown: personal communication

(2) Schroder, W.K., Dutch Island and Fort Greble: Arcadia Publishing of Chalford Publishing Corp., Dover, N.H. 1998

(3) Jeremy D’Entremont: personal communication