When you visit Newport (which I highly recommend), you can't help but notice 2 lighthouses when you drive over the Pell Bridge: Rose Island Light and Goat Island Light. They both guard Newport Harbor on their own islands. Goat Island Light is the smaller of the two.
But before we get to the lighthouse, let's look at the island first since it provides important context. Goat Island was originally home to the Narragansett Native Americans, who called the island Nante Sinunk. Even after the larger Aquidneck Island was colonized and Newport was founded in 1639, Goat Island remained with the Narragansett until the late 1650s. On May 22, 1658 the island, along with Coasters Harbor Island and Dutch Island, were purchased by Benedict Arnold, Jr. for approximately $12. In May of 1676, Arnold deeded both Goat Island and Coaster Harbor Island to Newport. By this point, he had become the first Colonial Governor of Rhode Island.
Early Newport colonists used the grassy island as a goat pasture, hence the name. But because of its strategic location, the island was an obvious place for a fortified military site. Early rudimentary forts were built on the island as early as 1700, and later, a more formalized fort - Fort George, partially designed by Peter Harrison. On July 9, 1764, the Rhode Island colony Governor Steph Hopkins ordered gunners from the Newport Artillery Company to fire upon a British schooner in the harbor. This is recognized as the first shots of resistance against British authority. Hopkins would later be a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
When Rhode Island declared independence in 1776, Fort George was rechristened Fort Liberty. The fort fell and was occupied by the British for 3 years until 1779. In 1784, the fort took on its third name, Fort Washington, and it was here that the first cannon salute was given announcing Rhode Island had joined the Union of the Thirteen United States in 1790. In 1798, Newport officially ceded the island to the federal government for $1,500 and the fort was given its fourth and final name: Fort Wolcott. However, only 30 years later the fort was abandoned in favor of the rebuilt Fort Adams.
Switching back over to the lighthouses...the first light station was established on Goat Island in 1823, at the northern tip. The tower was 25 feet tall and cost Congress $2,500 to build. Although construction was technically complete in 1823, the light was not lit until New Years Day in 1824. Despite the fact that the Fresnel lens was invented in 1822, this light utilized an arrangement of 8 lamps and 9 reflectors. The original light had a continuous white light. The keeper's house had 6 rooms with Samuel Watson as the first keeper.
Unfortunately, this first lighthouse did not adequately mark the hazardous entrance to Newport Harbor and many ships ran aground. The decision was made that the tower needed to be further out in the water, closer to a shallow reef. Between 1834 and 1842, it cost $67,000 to construct a long breakwater for the new 29-foot tall light--about $2.3 million if adjusted for inflation! The octagonal tower was made of rough cut granite. Fortunately, the original lighthouse was not demolished but relocated north to the nearby Prudence Island, where it still stands and operates today.
In 1857, a Fourth Order Fresnel lens was placed in the new tower, and a few years later a connecting keeper's house was built. It was completed in 1864 and somehow managed to fit on the 20x20 foot granite pier holding the light. A fog bell was added in 1873 and in 1891, a clock for occulting (or timed) light was added. At this point, the lighthouse's characteristics changed from continuous white to flashing white with 15 seconds of light followed by 5 seconds of darkness.
The island fully transformed in the 1860s after Adolph E. Borie, Secretary of the Navy, ordered a torpedo station to be constructed on Goat Island in 1869, and the Navy officially took over Fort Wolcott and the rest of the island. The first commanding officer was Commander Edmund O. Matthews, and under his command the station trained sailors and experimented with torpedoes, explosives, and electrical equipment.
In 1871, the station's total output for the year amounted to a single torpedo. However, this was viewed as a huge success. Early torpedoes were more like mines and it took a lot of manpower and experimentation to develop torpedoes able to direct their course through water after a target.
By 1906, operations had increased and a naval torpedo factory was built. The factory became the sole manufacturer of all torpedoes for the US Navy. In June of 1912, the destroyer Mayrant capsized in the harbor and lighthouse keeper Charles Schoeneman saved 3 of the 8 sailors. Fortunately other boats in the harbor managed to save the rest. In 1915, the torpedo factory expanded in anticipation of war overseas.
Unfortunately, the keeper's house had to be demolished in 1922 after the breakwater was struck by a submarine in November of 1921. Instead of rebuilding the house, the decision was made to just electrify the light and pass the management responsibilities to the personnel at the torpedo station. The light was eventually automated in 1963.
During the height of the World Wars, the torpedo station still managed to produce 80% of the torpedoes used overseas and employed more than 13,000 people in more than 100 buildings. After the Second World War, the station became obsolete when operations shifted to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center north of Newport. The Goat Island torpedo station was decommissioned and closed in 1951.
After this, the setting around Goat Island Light changed dramatically. The island sat empty for about a decade until it was sold in the 1960s to private developer Newport Redevelopment Agency. All but 4 of the Navy's former buildings were demolished to make way for redevelopment.
Goat Island had been part of Newport and the United States' military history for 300 years by the time it was redeveloped for the tourism industry. The Goat Island Light witnessed the transition from small fort to experimental torpedo factory, and large scale torpedo production during the World Wars to effective abandonment in the mid-20th century. Redevelopment of the island not only opened a new chapter for the island itself, but also for interest in the historic lighthouse that had been around through it all.
In 1989, Goat Island Light was listed on the National Register. Although still owned by the USCG, the light was leased by the American Lighthouse Foundation beginning in 2000. The local chapter is the Friends of Newport Harbor Light. In 2005, the Friends traded the lighthouse's characteristic white light for a green one, visible for 11 nautical miles. The following year, the Friends were able to begin a $120,000 restoration project. More than 20% of the funds came from a grant from local The 1772 Foundation. Despite all of this work and dedication since 2000, the Friends of Newport Harbor Light did not renew their lease of the light with the USCG in 2018.
Today, Goat Island Light's surroundings look a little different. It is no longer isolated at the end of a breakwater. As the island changed from a military facility to tourism hotspot, some of the harbor was filled in next to the breakwater to create more land. Now you can walk right up the the 20x20 foot pier in grass. It's crazy to think about everything that small light has seen in its 180+ years.
Newport Historical Society
American Lighthouse Foundation
Samuel Watson (1824-1841)
Caleb C. Mumford (1841-1845)
Henry Oman (1845-1849)
Pardon W. Stevens (1849-1853)
John Case (1853-1863)
John Heath (1863-1868)
Mary Ann Heath (1868-1873)
Henry W. Crawford (1873-1883)
Charles Schoeneman (1883-1921)