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Conimicut Light
Near Warwick, Rhode Island
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History
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

The lighthouse established in 1828 at Nayatt Point, on the east side of the entrance to the Providence River, proved insufficient to warn navigators of the dangerous sandbar extending out from Conimicut Point across at the west side.

An unlighted wooden daymark was established as a warning in the middle of the river's mouth by 1858. That first daymark was swept away by ice in 1860, and a spar buoy took its place.

A new granite tower was built in 1866, and at the request of local mariners the daymark was converted into a lighted aid to navigation in November 1868. Nayatt Point Light was then discontinued. There was no dwelling at the new light, meaning the early keepers had to make a dangerous one-mile rowboat trip to tend the light. In 1874, a five-room house was built on the pier at the light.


U.S. Coast Guard photo

On February 27, 1874, Horace W. Arnold was appointed keeper. Arnold, a Rhode Island native and Civil War veteran, had just served two years as an assistant keeper at Beavertail Light. A little over a year later, in early March 1875, Arnold was at the five-room keeper's dwelling at the light with his young son, when drifting ice, driven by strong northeast winds, abruptly smashed into the structure.

The Arnolds were lucky to escape with their lives as the house broke apart. They were rescued several hours later by the tug Reliance, captained by Nat Sutton. Sutton spotted Arnold on a mattress on a drifting ice floe, later describing him as "sitting like a man on a magic carpet." The keeper's hands and feet were frozen and it was some months before he could fully resume his duties.

Captain John Weeden, keeper at the Sabin Point Lighthouse, volunteered to row to Conimicut Light and care for the light. As he was performing his duties, Weeden's boat was destroyed by ice, stranding him. A snowstorm set in, and Weeden calmly prepared himself a breakfast of tea and jonnycakes. He then rang the fog bell until he was finally rescued that evening. For the next few years the keepers lived at the house at the old Nayatt Point Light and rowed to the light.

In 1882 the old granite tower was torn down and a new cast-iron sparkplug-style light was built, with a fourth-order Fresnel lens and a fixed white light visible for 15 miles. The caisson is sunk 10 feet into the bottom of the bay and is constructed of cast-iron plates. When the caisson was filled with concrete, space was left for a basement with space for water and fuel storage.

The keeper's bedroom was one level below the lantern room. The room was described in 1891 as pretty, with blue walls, an ash bedroom set and arched windows.


U.S. Coast Guard Academy Library

Horace Arnold was credited with saving the lives of five people during his 12 years at Conimicut Light. An article in the Newport Daily News mentioned in passing that one of Arnold’s sons lost his life after a fall from the lighthouse onto the rocks below, but no details were provided and it’s not clear if this report was accurate. Arnold left in 1886 to become keeper of the lighthouse at the northern tip of Conanicut Island, where he would stay for the remaining 28 years of his career.

The early keepers generally remained at the offshore lighthouse for a few years at most, but Daniel MacDonald remained for 11 years, 1895 to 1906.
On March 1, 1905, the keeper’s two small sons—six-year-old Leslie and three-year-old Melton—were playing on the rocks near the base of the tower. Leslie was poking at the passing ice cakes with a pole, when little Melton lost his footing suddenly and plunged into the freezing water.

When he heard his brother’s frantic cries, Leslie took instant action. Easing himself down until he was waist deep in water, Leslie extended the pole far enough for Melton to grasp it. With his older brother exhorting him to hang on, the boy was pulled to safety.

About three weeks later, Leslie received a letter from Wilbert E. Longfellow, commander of the Rhode Island department of the United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps. “I fully realize the very natural antipathy which any person has of an icy bath in the winter,” wrote Longfellow, “and the courage it took to make the plunge for the little chap who had fallen in.” A few weeks later, a party from the corps arrived at the lighthouse to present Leslie with a medal of honor for his cool-headed rescue.

Control of the nation's lighthouses went to the Coast Guard in 1939, but civilian Lighthouse Service keepers remained in charge at Conimicut until the late 1950s when Coast Guard keepers finally took over. When 17-year-old Bob Onosko arrived in 1957, the Coast Guard's officer in charge at Conimicut was First Class Boatswain's Mate Bob Reedy, who had taken over when the last civilian keeper, a Mr. Powell, had died at the station.

The crew's water supply came from rainwater collected in a basement cistern. The water was piped to the kitchen by the use of a hand pump. "On occasions Bob Reedy would pour a gallon of bleach in the cistern as a precaution," says Onosko. "I still remember how bad the water tasted after that."

18-year-old Fred Mikkelsen was assigned to Conimicut Light in 1958. The officer in charge when Mikkelsen arrived was First Class Boatswain's Mate Joe Bakken. When fog rolled in, the old Gamewell Fog Bell Striker was put to work. The machine "had to be maintained, oiled and cleaned," according to Mikkelsen. It ran about two hours on 10 minutes of winding. The bell would be struck automatically every 10 seconds, but inside the tower the noise of the striking machine was louder than the bell. If the striker stopped, "the silence would wake me from a sound sleep," Mikkelsen recalls.

During Bob Onosko's year at the lighthouse, he was frequently alone and there were never more than two men on duty. During Mikkelsen's three years, the official complement of four men was never realized.

Mikkelsen's scariest experience in his three years at the lighthouse was a 1960 hurricane. At the height of the storm, the surging sea blocked all sunlight through the galley windows on the first level. When he went to the lantern to check the light, Mikkelsen became aware that the lighthouse was moving in the storm, with the greatest movement near the top. "It would bang you against the wall," he says, "and you had to hang on to the handrail of the ladder."

The light was fully electrified via cable from shore in 1960, shortly after Fred Mikkelsen left. The IOV lamp had been in use for 47 years. Although many sources say this was the last lighthouse in the nation to be converted to electricity, there was at least one that came later-Burnt Island Light in Maine (1962). The light was automated and the resident keepers were removed in 1963.

The boarded-up lighthouse has held up fairly well in the intervening years. A 1955 boat landing, made of wood, was badly damaged by ice and was replaced by a new steel landing in 1994. Personnel from Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Bristol had painted the exterior of the tower in the previous year.

 

Below are some photos submitted by Fred Mikkelsen, who lived at Conimicut Light from 1958 to 1961 as the Coast Guard Assistant Oficer in Charge and Engineman:


lens
The Fresnel lens seen from the NE. The open side faced Conimicut Point and a ruby pane (out of the picture) covered Conimicut Middle Ground (the approach when using the West Passage).
bell room
The bell room, with a Gamewell bell striker, generator and batteries for the ship to shore radio.
workroom
The workshop, with a spare generator being overhauled.
bell
The fog bell. The characteristic was once every 15 seconds.
bedroom
The crew's quarters - Fred Mikkelsen's bunk.
office
The "day room" office
galley
The galley with hand pump.
lighthouse
This was Fred's home for 3 years.
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

In the spring of 1997 a Coast Guard crew during routine maintenance at the lighthouse found a stranded coyote that apparently had managed to swim to the lighthouse. The Coast Guardsmen got the animal into a cage and it was eventually released in the woods.

On September 29, 2004, a ceremony was held to announce the transfer of the lighthouse to the city of Warwick under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. In early 2005, a new organization, the Conimicut Lighthouse Foundation, was formed. The foundation will be responsible for the preservation and operation of the lighthouse.

Preservation efforts received a big boost in late 2005 when the lighthouse was earmarked for a $560,000 "transportation enhancement" grant from the Department of Transportation. Once restoration is completed, there are plans to add furnishings inside the lighthouse to re-create its appearance in the days of resident keepers. For the edification of those who aren't able to visit the lighthouse, an informational exhibit is planned for Conimicut Point Park.

You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Rhode Island by Jeremy D'Entremont.


Keepers: (This list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at nelights@gmail.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)

Davis Perry (1868-1869), H. Perry (assistant, 1869), ? Healy (1869-1871), C. Rounds (?) (assistant, 1869-1870), Charles A. Wells (assistant, 1870), Robert H. Tobin (assistant, 1870-1871), John Walker (1871-1874), James King (assistant, 1871-1872), Benjamin (?) King (assistant, 1872), William Crawford (assistant, 1873), ? Beaumont (assistant, 1874), Horace Arnold (1874-1886), Francis E. Arnold (assistant, 1878-1881), E. M. Buckingham (assistant, 1881), Benedict A. Winslow (assistant, 1881-1882), Ernest L. Arnold (assistant, 1882-1884), Benajah B. Gray (1886-1890), Edward L. Hunt (1890-1892), Joseph B. Eddy (1892-1894), Thomas S. Fishburne (1894-1895), Daniel MacDonald (1895-1906), Joseph Burke (1906), E. R. Curtis (1906-1907), Daniel L. Reardon (1907-1909), Nicolai Jensen (Jansen?) (1909-c. 1920?), Ellsworth Smith (c. 1921-1922), ? Powell (?-c. 1957), Bob Onosko (Coast Guard, 1957), Bob Reedy (Coast Guard, c. 1957), Fred Mikkelsen (Coast Guard 1958-1961)

Last updated 10/2/12
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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