Dutch Island, between Jamestown to the east and Saunderstown (part of North Kingstown) to the west, was known to the local Indians as Quetenis. The 81-acre island got its present name because the West India Company established a trading post there in the 1630s. They traded Dutch goods in exchange for furs, meat and fish from the Indians.
The federal government acquired six acres at the southern tip of the island in 1825, and on January 1, 1827, Dutch Island Light was established to mark the west passage of Narragansett Bay and to aid vessels entering Dutch Island Harbor. The first 30-foot tower was built of stones found on the island.
The first keeper was Newport native William Dennis. During the course of the American Revolution, he had commanded six different privateering vessels and was twice taken prisoner. He went on to become one of the oldest lighthouse keepers in New England history, serving to the age of 93. His son, Robert, later served as keeper.
The four-room keeper's dwelling and the lighthouse were described around the mid-nineteenth century as the "worst constructed of any in the state," and the lantern was described as "wretched." A new 42-foot brick tower and keeper's house were constructed for $4,000 in 1857, with a fourth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light.
George Fife became keeper in 1875. When a fog bell with striking machinery was added in 1878, with the bell protruding from a window near the top of the tower, Keeper Fife's wife was appointed as an assistant keeper to help with the extra duties.
The light's characteristic was changed to occulting red in 1924. The light was automated in 1947, and the last keeper, Ernest Stacey, was removed. In 1958, after the military use of the island had ended, the entire island except for the light station was deeded to the state of Rhode Island. The deed stated that the island was to be used "for the conservation of wildlife."
A report in April of 1960 stated that the keeper's house had "deteriorated greatly in the past 10 years; that all windows and doors have been broken or removed; all paint is peeling; several areas of plaster have fallen, and the roof whos signs of leaking." The report also said that the wooden boathouse had been moved about 100 feet in a recent storm.
The dwelling and boathouse were demolished by the Coast Guard soon after this. All that remains today is the lighthouse, a 1938 concrete engine house with no roof, and the remains of a well.
In 1962, the light station property, except for the tower, was transferred to the state of Rhode Island. The island and lighthouse are now owned by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM). The Coast Guard proposed discontinuing the light in 1972, saying it had outlived its usefulness. They pointed out that in January of that year the light had been out for several days before anyone reported the problem to authorities. There was tremendous opposition to discontinuing the light.
Several petitions and 40 to 50 letters opposing the move were received by the Aids to Navigation office in Boston, and the Rhode Island Natural Resources Department said the light was needed to guide small craft to Dutch Island Harbor. As a result of this pressure, the Coast Guard not only retained the light, but actually increased its intensity.
Due to rampant vandalism, the Coast Guard again proposed discontinuing the light in 1977. In that year alone, vandals smashed the door and stole equipment. Someone even poured liquid steel into a lock. It was just too expensive for the Coast Guard to keep up with the repairs, and Dutch Island Light was officially discontinued in 1979, replaced by offshore buoys.
The Dutch Island Lighthouse Society (DILS), a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation was founded to restore the lighthouse. In 2002, DILS was recommended for $120,000 in Transportation Enhancement funding under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). It's hoped that the design phase of restoration will begin by sometime in 2007. Much fundraising still needs to be done to make sure the lighthouse is preserved for future generations.