It seems appropriate to start this journey on National Lighthouse Day, which commemorates August 7, 1789 when Congress approved an Act to establish and support not only lighthouses but also beacons, buoys, and public piers. The first National Lighthouse Day was 200 years later in 1989, and was sponsored by Senator John H. Chafee (Rhode Island).
Interestingly enough, my love of lighthouses began in Rhode Island when I was living there for college. There are a staggering 9 lighthouses in and around Newport, Rhode Island: Beavertail, Dutch Island, Rose Island, Hog Island Shoal, Ida Lewis Rock, Goat Island, Prudence Island, Sakonnet Point, and last but not least, Castle Hill Light.
An application for a lighthouse at Castle Hill (then called Newport Neck) was first submitted in 1869. The proposed location was at the entrance of the east passage into Narragansett Bay on Aquidneck Island, opposite Beavertail Lighthouse on Conanicut Island. However, although the Lighthouse Board recommended a light and fog signal, Congress denied the $18,000 of funding needed. The request was denied again the following year and the pursuit was forgotten for the time being.
However, just a few years later brothers-in-law Alexander Agassig and Quincy Adams Shaw purchased Newport Neck / Castle Hill in 1874, as a location for their summer cottages. The following year Congress finally approved funding for at least a fog signal, but they were too late. The brothers-in-law felt the signal would lower their property value and would not sell a portion of their land to the government for the signal.
After 11 years of negotiating, the Lighthouse Board was finally able to convince Agassig and he sold a small lot for a lighthouse for $1.00. However, negotiations didn't end there. It took a further 2 years for Agassig to deed a narrow near-2-acre right of way to the builder William Wilbur to allow him to actually construct the lighthouse. Finally however, construction began in 1889 and was completed in early 1890.
Rumored to have been designed by H.H. Richardson, the lighthouse is considered Richardson Romanesque and is a free-standing conical tower built of rusticated granite block. The finished structure stands at 42-feet tall from the water, and has a octagonal cast-iron lantern with iron balustrade set atop its granite walls. The lantern was fitted with a fifth-order Fresnel lens that flashed red. The light flashes every 6 seconds and has a range of 12 miles. A signal bell was mounted on a stone bracket on the water side. The new lighthouse was lit for the first time on May 1, 1890.
Originally, a wood frame keeper's dwelling stood near the light, higher up from the waters edge. In 1899, the upper half of the lighthouse received a white coat of paint to make it more visible to passing ships.
Although the keeper's house was destroyed in the 1938 Hurricane, the lighthouse remained steadfast. In 1941 the Coast Guard built a station over the hill from the original keeper's house, and a keeper would hike from the station every evening. This arrangement carried on until 1957, when the light was automated. At this time the original Fresnel lens was replaced with a plastic 300mm lens.
Today, Castle Hill Light is 1 of 10 active light stations in Rhode Island that still consist of their original traditional towers. There were originally 30 light stations in Rhode Island commissioned between 1749 and 1901.
Visiting Castle Hill Light feels like an exclusive experience. The right of way originally deeded by Agassig is still open to the public, even though Castle Hill is now home to a luxury inn and restaurant - located inside Agassig's 1874 summer cottage. Visitors can park at the inn parking lot and take the short, but well worn path down to the light.
In addition to being a popular sunset location and photoshoot spot, Castle Hill Light is still used for navigation in Narragansett Bay and has served as the start and finish line for many of Newport's famous yachting and sailing races. Thankfully in 2020, Castle Hill Inn gave the lighthouse a cleaning and fresh coat of paint as part of their 5-year maintenance agreement with the Coast Guard. Castle Hill Light might be small, but it's well worth a visit if you find yourself in Newport.
Frank W. Parmele (1890-1911)
George L. Hoxsie (1911-1944)
Manuel S. Macedo (1945)
Earnest H. Stacey (USCG) (1947-1948)
1987 NRHP Inventory Form "Lighthouses of Rhode Island: Thematic Group"
1988 NRHP Nomination 88000277 "Castle Hill Lighthouse"
Rhode Island Lighthouse History by Richard Holmes