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Beavertail Lighthouse restoration enhances grandeur

June 20, 2011

JAMESTOWN – The historic Beavertail Lighthouse, with its majestic 64-foot tower, is a popular place even when its foghorn issues a throaty warning every 30 seconds.
Visitors explore the Department of Environmental Management’s aquarium exhibits in an adjacent outbuilding and browse through the lighthouse museum, located in the assistant keeper’s cottage.
The collection of artifacts and exhibits focused on early lighthouses and lightships, restored lights and shipwrecks chronicles the importance of the area’s maritime history. Most interesting is the 4th-order Fresnel lens, displayed on a column with its light magically issuing a bright rhythmic signal.
When it flashes, the 1930s era light – removed when a larger lens was installed in the tower – is reminiscent of the “Wizard of Oz” scene in which the great and mighty wizard is revealed as a little man behind a curtain, manipulating gadgets to make himself appear magnificent.
Behind a door exposing the Fresnel lens’s interior mechanism is a pair of small, vertical antique light bulbs that resemble those of early radio crystal sets. The mystery of the light’s enormous power is in the prisms that reflect and magnify the bulbs’ output.
On a clear New England morning, sightseers are treated to a breathtaking panoramic view from the island’s southernmost tip to nearly every corner of Narragansett Bay.
The Beavertail Lighthouse, which dates from an earlier tower built in 1749, is the third oldest structure of its kind in North America. You might say restoration of the lighthouse and expansion of its museum are a combined work in progress.
Grants and donations have enabled the non-profit Beavertail Lighthouse and Museum Association, organized in 1992, to steadily repair and replace long-neglected portions of the property. An ambitious plan calls for expansion of the display space and creation of a theater and a large courtyard connecting the tower building and its two historic cottages (one for the keeper, dating to 1856, and the other built for the assistant in 1898) with a handful of restored outbuildings.
Volunteers are also working to document 2,500 marine disasters that occurred in the Bay; to date, 650 have been catalogued including wrecks of coal barges.
A former passage through which the keeper could pass from his cottage and go straight to the control room and tower will be reopened, making it more historically correct.
Varoujan Karentz, longtime board member of the association and an enthusiastic scholar of the nautical history of Rhode Island, describes what’s been accomplished so far and what remains to be done.
“The fog and salt spray cause corrosion and that requires constant upkeep,” he says. “Last year we [used a grant] to finish the exterior restoration of the keeper’s and assistant keeper’s cottages. The Coast Guard [which owns the property] had totally neglected it. Before that, it was the U.S. Lighthouse Board.”
Karentz says the mortar between the tower’s enormous granite blocks had cracked – the result of a weather syndrome known as freeze-and-thaw – and water was standing inside the base.
“The brick walls that line the interior were wet,” he says. “It wasn’t unusual to come in and find two feet of standing water.”
“We open the tower six to eight times a year for visitors,” he recalls. “It’s a free-admission museum but we encourage donations. When the tower is open, a docent suggests a donation of $5.”
A $229,000 grant from the Champlin Foundation is earmarked for restoring the tower and two outbuildings. The 49 iron stairs leading up to the tower and a platform/catwalk still need to be sandblasted, coated and repaired in some places, but a brass railing was installed last year for safety.
The museum association’s docents completed restoration and painting of 32 windows two days before the opening of the summer season.
Beavertail Lighthouse, which averages 26,000 visitors over a yearly two-month period, won a Little Rhody Award last year for site preservation.
Karentz says the association has spent $380,000 in the last three years on various projects including the installation of a new heating system, baseboards and track lighting, fire alarm and security system and a complete electrical system update.
In addition, a 1909 building used for oil storage was recently restored. It will contain storyboards relating what Karentz calls “the history and characteristics of the other lighthouses in Narragansett Bay.”
With the publication of his book, Beavertail Light Station on Conanicut Island–a comprehensive study that includes charts, details of experimental horns and tales of heroic keepers such as the first woman, the keeper who raised 11 children in the tiny cottage and the man who died in the 1938 Hurricane, being swept into the sea while trying to keep the light going–Karentz became a local celebrity.
He was drawn to the lighthouse after retiring to a nearby house “It was so easy to come down and take in all this grandeur.”
Karentz estimates it will take $900,000 to finish everything.
The Beavertail Lighthouse is open weekends from noon to 3 p.m. through mid-June when a full daily schedule starts, expanding the hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Those wishing to donate to the restoration project can visit the web site www.beavertaillight.org or write to BLMA, P.O. Box 83, Jamestown, 02835.

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at mgs3dachs@cox.net.

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