As you already know, especially if you've read my previous blogs, Rhode Island is a gold mine of lighthouses. It's worth a visit, even more so if you don't like driving long distances. On a little off the beaten path is Dutch Island Light, located on Dutch Island in Narragansett Bay. You can see it off to the south as you're driving over the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge and you can get an even closer look from Fort Getty Park on Conanicut Island. The best view of the light is by boat.
You may be wondering where the name Dutch Island came from. Even if you aren't, here's why. Dating back as far as the 1630s, the island was used as a trading post for the Dutch West India Company. Before that, it was known by the Native Americans as "Quetenis." The trading company sold the island to the colonists in 1654, who used the land for grazing sheep. This continued for generations until 1852, when Powel Carpenter purchased the island for his new fish oil works. His venture failed and he sold the island to the US government in 1863, who wanted it for strategic reasons. More on this later...you're probably mostly here for the lighthouse.
Before purchasing the entire island, the US government purchased 6 acres on the southern end of the island in 1825, to establish a light station. The need for a light is unsurprising given the relatively narrow strait between Dutch Island and Conanicut Island. The first lighthouse was completed in 1826, and the first appointed keeper was William Dennis -- aged 78 years young. It was described as a 30-foot tower built of found stones on the island.
Based on other descriptions of the light, it sounds like we aren't missing much. Jeremy D'Entremont, American Lighthouse Foundation historian, described the light as "the worst construction of any in the state" with a "wretched" lantern. Based on this, thankfully the original light was demolished thirty years later, and a new tower was completed in 1857. In contrast, this tower was inspected by engineers in 2007, and was found to still be "very sound."
The original 1857 structure included a 42-foot tall tower with an attached four room keeper's house. The lantern housed a Fourth Order Fresnel lens with a fixed white light. A fog bell was added thirty years later in 1878.
In 1924, the Dutch Island Light's characteristic was changed from fixed white to flashing red. At this point, the light was still powered by kerosene and required heavy weights to rotate the lens. Nearly two decades later, the lighthouse was automated in 1943. Shortly thereafter, the military left the island in 1947. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for nature (and people) to reclaim the lighthouse and keeper's house. The keeper's house had to be demolished in 1950, due to vandalism and overgrown vegetation.
Now back to a quick aside about the island as a whole. It's not well-documented if the island was involved in Revolutionary War activities, but during the Civil War, the beginnings of fortifications were built of granite on the southern end of the island. The first men stationed there were the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery unit, a black regiment. The largest building boom on the island took place spanning 2 decades during the Spanish American War and World War I (approximately 1898-1918).
The structures were collectively known as Fort Greble after Lt. John Trout Greble, one of the first officers killed during the Civil War. Fort Getty on the main Conanicut Island, served as a counterpart to Fort Greble.
In 1908, combined military exercises were conducted in June with units from Fort Greble and Fort Adams, on nearby Aquidneck Island. They simulated a combined land and sea attack. Several of Fort Greble's guns were dismounted and sent overseas for potential service at the Western Front during World War I. Other artillery was dismounted and relocated to be used on railway defenses.
At its height, Fort Greble included a collection of brick homes for officers, a hospital, stables, a bakery, bowling alley, tennis court, post office, and a host of wood-frame buildings. As you can see in the photo below, there were very few trees on the island at this time, likely because they'd all been felled for construction.
During World War II, Fort Greble was used for National Guard training and housed as many as 495 troops at any given time. At the onset of the war, only 2 batteries remained armed, and were considered obsolete by 1942. Some sources note that the fort was used as a German prisoner-of-war camp. After Fort Greble was discontinued in 1947, the island became state property in 1958.
Another surge of new public land came in the 1970s, when the Navy presence in Rhode Island diminished. Many of the Narragansett Bay islands like Dutch Island and Gould Island that had been used for ammunition storage were transferred to the Department of Environmental Management to become the core of the Bay Island Park System. The island remains unoccupied to this day. The state did fence off the remaining military structures to prevent vandalism and to protect visitors from any remaining hazards; however, visitors are welcome to explore the rest of the small island.
The lighthouse was listed on the National Register in 1984, and later as a historic structure by the town of Jamestown in 1988. The period of significance is listed as 1800-1899, with particular focus on 1827 and 1857 when the light station was first established and when the current structure was completed. It's also important to mention that the first light was only the second to be completed in Narragansett Bay. Today, all that remains of Fort Greble is crumbling concrete defenses.
While all this transferring of land was going on, the Coast Guard continued to keep the light automated. However, in 1972, the Coast Guard proposed discontinuing the light altogether and declaring it excess. Dozens of protest letters were sent in, and as a result, the Coast Guard increased the light's intensity for a time. Unfortunately, extensive vandalism became an issue and the Coast Guard brought up discontinuing the light again in 1977. Two years later, a flashing red buoy was installed in the water off the island and Dutch Island Lighthouse went dark.
The tower sat in darkness until a glimmer of light appeared in 2000, when the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society (DILS) was founded as a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation. The Society filed an application the following year for funds to restore and reactivate the light at a cost of $120,000. The RIDOT grant was accepted.
By 2005, DILS had successfully negotiated a long-term lease of the lighthouse from the Department of Environmental Management. The first site visit for planning the repairs was in the summer of that year and work soon followed.
The grant money was well spent. Outside, the tuck-pointing was repaired, a new roof was installed, the tower glass was replaced with double-pane, window frames were repaired or replaced, and the exterior was painted. On the inside, the stairway was repaired and the door was replaced. A solar-powered light system was also fitted and installed.
November 17, 2007 was an important day for the light. For the first time in 3 decades, Dutch Island Light was lit and began to flash its characteristic red light once more.
As mentioned, Dutch Island is open to the public; however, you'll have to figure out how to get there on your own. There is no ferry service to the island like other Narragansett Bay islands. Private boat or kayak is the best way to visit. For viewing on land, Fort Getty on Conanicut Island is the closest you can get.
From the Collection - Fort Greble - Dutch Island, May 5, 2021
Historic and Architectural Resources of Jamestown, Rhode Island; Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission
100 Years of Rhode Island State Parks 1909-2009, Albert T. Klyberg, L.H.D. DEM Naturalist, Kelly House Museum
Keepers of the Dutch Island Light: The light is re-lit, The Jamestown Press, Sue Maden and Rosemary Enright, 2009
William Dennis (1827–1843)
Robert H. Weeden (1843–1844)
William P. Babcock (1844–1846)
Robert Dennis (1846–1853)
Benjamin Congdon (1853–1859)
M. M. Trundy (1859–1865)
William Wales (1865-1873)
Andrew King (1873-1875)
Henry Crawford (1883-1885)
Lewis T. King (1885-1901)
Albert Porter (1901-1915)
John Cook (1915-1927)
John Paul (1929-1931)
John Davies (1931-1934)
Stanley Gunderson (1934-1935)
William Anderson (1935-1936)
Ernest H. Stacey (1936-1947)