The Lighthouse presented images of sight and sound that
conveyed a profound sense of beauty, security, dependability, and peace.
- Lawrence H. Bradner, The Plum Beach Light: The
Birth, Life and Death of a Lighthouse.
The West Passage of
Narragansett Bay, the most direct route from the south to Providence,
Rhode Island, was bustling with vessels carrying coal and other freight
in the late 1800s. Plum Beach Light was established to help mariners
through this busy and dangerous area. Construction of the lighthouse
was a great challenge, since the seas in the area were particularly
During the building period a construction schooner lost
anchorage and was swept down the passage, saved only by a cable near
Beavertail. The contractor complained that Narragansett Bay was "the
stormiest place we have ever worked."
Plum Beach Light was one of a small number of American
lighthouses built by the pneumatic caisson method. A massive wooden
caisson topped with the first few courses of a cast-iron cylinder, 33
feet in diameter, was lowered to the floor of the bay. The water was
pumped out of the caisson and workers entered it to dig into the
bottom, allowing the structure to sink 30 feet into the floor of
When the 54-foot cast-iron lighthouse was finished in
1899 there were not enough funds available for a lens, so for a time a
temporary lantern was used.
U.S. Coast Guard Academy Library
A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed and
illuminated on July 1, 1899. The revolving lens floated on a bed of
The Lighthouse Service had trouble staffing the
lighthouse, as many keepers felt it to be a dangerous and isolated
During the severe winter of 1918, people were able to
drive vehicles across the frozen West Passage. The foundation of the
lighthouse was badly cracked by the ice. Repairs were made in 1922 and
9,000 tons of riprap stone were added to prevent further damage.
Many visitors came by boat to Plum Beach Light and were
treated to tours given by Keeper Charlie Ormsby. These guests were
impressed by the immaculate condition of the lighthouse and by the
breathtaking view of the bay from the lantern room. Other visitors swam
to the lighthouse, and eventually the "Lighthouse Swim" became an
organized annual event.
The keepers augmented their diet with clams and quahogs
dug at nearby Plum Beach Point and blueberries picked on the shore of
Conanicut Island. For those who were strong enough to row back and
forth to the mainland and were willing to endure the rough winters,
Plum Beach Light was not a bad place to be a keeper.
At about 2:30 on the afternoon of September 21, 1938,
Edwin S. Babcock, a substitute keeper, left in a dory to row ashore
from Plum Beach Light. The seas were growing rough and Babcock was
forced to return to the lighthouse. John O. Ganze, assistant keeper,
was in charge. It was becoming obvious that a major storm was on the
way, so the two men secured all the windows and doors in the tower.
Waves were soon pounding the lighthouse. Babcock looked
out a window and saw a yacht passing by "at 60 miles per hour." Babcock
later reported the yacht's occupants as dead, thinking they couldn't
have survived. But they did survive, landing 200 feet inland on Fox
Island, near Wickford.
The keepers took refuge in the fourth level of the
lighthouse, only to see that wrecked boats and buildings were sweeping
past them. The 30-foot waves broke open a door in the tower, washing
away furniture and the station's boats. The two men went as high as
they could, to the fog bell room. There they lashed themselves, back to
back, to the pipe that contained the weights for the clockwork
mechanism that rotated the lens. They felt a gigantic wave, possibly a
tidal wave, strike the lighthouse. Finally, by early in the evening,
the storm subsided.
Right: John O. Ganze, Courtesy of Alda
It wasn't until the next morning that the men could get a
clear picture of how lucky they were to be alive. Assistant Keeper
Ganze used the light to signal the keeper at Whale Rock Light five
miles away. There was no answer -- Whale Rock Light and its keeper were
lost in the hurricane.
Seven people at lighthouses in the general area were
killed in the hurricane of 1938, and several lighthouses were destroyed
or irrevocably damaged. 262 people in the state of Rhode Island died in
the storm. The hurricane reopened the old cracks in Plum Beach Light
and did great damage to the entire structure.
In 1941 the completion of the first bridge between North
Kingstown and Jamestown made Plum Beach Light obsolete. Birds took
posession of the abandoned tower.
The lighthouse soon lost all its doors and windows and
became badly rusted. The Coast Guard claimed that the lighthouse became
state property by eminent domain, but the state denied ownership.
James Osborn was hired to paint the lighthouse in 1973. He
became severely ill and suffered permanently blurred vision from
exposure to the guano in the tower and filed a lawsuit against the
state in 1984. The case was in and out of the courts for 14 years.
In 1988, a Massachusetts group planned to buy the
lighthouse and moving it to Quincy, Massachusetts, where it was to be
converted into a lighthouse museum. A local woman, Shirley Silvia, felt
the structure should stay put. Silvia and others founded the Friends of Plum Beach
Lighthouse but made little progress due to the question of
ownership. The structure continued to deteriorate, a battered hulk that
seemed more an eyesore than a guardian.
In June 1998 a Superior Court ruled that the state
"owned and controlled Plum Beach Lighthouse" at the times relevant to
Osborn's suit. Three months later the suit was finally settled as the
state awarded Osborn $42,000.
The settlement of the ownership issue cleared the way for the Friends of Plum Beach
Lighthouse to acquire the lighthouse. In October 1999, the
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management transferred the
deed for the 100-year-old structure to the nonprofit organization.
At the deed transfer ceremony, DEM Director Jan H. Reitsma
The determined efforts of the Friends of Plum Beach
Lighthouse, Inc., have now paid off and will ensure that the
lighthouse will continue to have an important place in Rhode Island's
Senator John Chafee was quoted in the press release for the
There are no better symbols of reliability, constancy
and guidance than lighthouses... I'm proud to have played a role in
this worthy endeavor, and I tip my hat to Shirley Silvia and the Friends of Plum Beach
Lighthouse, Inc. Through their dogged persistence, they have
made this day possible. Three cheers!
In 1999 the Friends of Plum Beach
Lighthouse received $500,000 under the Transportation Act for
the 21st Century, known as TEA-21. In August 2000 a team from Newport
Collaborative Architects visited the lighthouse. A preliminary estimate
of $955,000 for a complete restoration of the lighthouse, inside and
out, was made in October 2000.
It was eventually decided to move forward with a
restoration of the exterior first. In early 2003 a contract was awarded
to the Abcore Restoration Company of Narragansett, RI, and work began
in late June 2003.
October 21, 1999 - The day
of the deed transfer
L to R: Jan Reitsma, DEM;
Shirley Silvia, Dot Silva, George Silva, and Alda Kaye of the Friends
of Plum Beach Lighthouse
Keith Lescarbeau of Abcore
at work at Plum Beach Lighthouse.
Photo by David Zapatka, courtesy of
Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse.
An astonishing 52 tons of pigeon guano was removed
from inside the tower with the help of Clean Harbors Environmental
Services, and it's hoped that the interior can be fully restored in the
future. The Abcore crew under Keith Lescarbeau removed a half-inch
layer of rust from the outside of the caisson and added reinforcing
steel bands to the caisson to prevent further damage. The stone riprap
around the caisson was also reinforced.
The upper gallery and its railing were repaired, new
doors and windows installed, and eight new glass panels were installed
in the lantern. The lighthouse has been repainted in its original color
scheme with the lantern and caisson black while the tower is painted
brown on its upper portion and white on the lower half. The Coast Guard
approved the return of a light to the lighthouse, once again making it
an active aid to navigation.
Plum Beach Light can be seen distantly from shore
and as you're driving over the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge, but it is
best viewed by boat.
To help with the ongoing preservation of Plum Beach
- You can read much more about this lighthouse in
the book The
Lighthouses of Rhode Island by Jeremy D'Entremont.
The lighthouse toward the
end of the 2003 renovation.
Photo by David Zapatka, courtesy of
Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse.
- 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
email@example.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does
so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and
- Joseph L. Eaton (1897-1899); Judson G. Allen (1899-1904);
George Ehrhardt (1904-1911); George A. Troy (1911-1913); Charles Ormsby
(c. 1915 - mid-1920s); ? Robarge (c. 1920s); "Moon" Mullins (c. 1920s);
Edwin S. Babcock, substitute keeper (early 1920s - 1938); Reuben
Phillips (late 1920s - c. 1938); John Otto Ganze, (assistant c. 1933-c.
1938, keeper c. 1938-1940).