Beacon of Preservation in Narragansett Bay

Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation keeps the light on

Thirty years ago this year the lighthouse on Rose Island was rescued and preserved.

Thirty years ago this year the lighthouse on Rose Island was rescued and preserved.

By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. — A buzz of activity surrounds a growing fire in a rough stone-ringed pit just above a small south-facing beach, just below one of Rhode Island’s most iconic lighthouses. A dozen or so intrepid souls have ventured by boat from Fort Adams to Rose Island to enjoy hot dogs and kale soup on a brilliant, if frigid, sunny first day of 2014.

Rose Island, a jewel in Narragansett Bay just west of Newport, has a heartening story to tell this New Year. It’s a success story of conservation and historic preservation, one of repeated victories thanks to hundreds of volunteers whose dedication and vision during the past 30 years have restored and protected an Ocean State treasure.

It’s a story told and retold by countless thousands who have visited or overnighted on the island. I follow in their footsteps as a guest at the annual New Year’s Day cookout, hosted by David McCurdy, executive director of the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation — the organization, then under the leadership of Charlotte Johnson, that rescued the lighthouse in 1984.

Abandoned by the Coast Guard 14 years earlier, the dilapidated and vandalized lighthouse was just a hurricane away from being swept off its foundation. However, thanks to the initiative and leadership of Johnson, and an active community that rallied to the cause, the iconic lighthouse was saved. Within a decade, the lighthouse was restored and the light re-lit as a private aid to navigation.

Last year saw another major renovation, thanks to a state Department of Transportation enhancement grant of $330,000 administered by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The renovation included new exterior wooden storm windows, clabbered siding, copper roof, a new light and a new safety railing around the lantern room.

After spending half the day walking the island and touring the restored lighthouse with the island’s stewards, I learned there is much to appreciate about this 18.5-acre refuge and its shining beacon. In particular, a strong and integral environmental ethos.

This was no where stronger in evidence as in the 1990s, when a group of local residents ringed the entire island with vertically erected bedsheets as a demonstration of their will to protect the island from development.

“They sewed sheets together and circled the entire island,” Nora Eschenheimer told me as we walked around the island after the first-of-the-year picnic. Eschenheimer, a niece to Johnson, has been coming to the island every year of her life, giving tours to visitors  since she was 10.

“There was a plan for a 700-boat marina on the north side with condos,” McCurdy said. “It was really happening for a while.”

Ultimately however, parking issues on the mainland, and sewer, water and power became too complicated for the developers, according to McCurdy.

Today harbor seals are the only seasonal residents, often seen lounging on rocks just offshore. “Just last week they counted 26 seals one day, and 22 the next,” said Cathy Herridge, the foundation’s education director, referring to the seal sightseeing tour run by Oldport Marine during the winter.

With the exception of the 1.5-acre site of the lighthouse, which is owned by the city of Newport, the entire island is owned by the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation and preserved forever.

Where once the Navy mixed high explosives, made TNT and manned anti-aircraft fortifications, migrating egrets and ibis now nest and novice light keepers overnight in a National Registry building that boasts modest environment impact thanks to an array of systems, from the most simple to the more complex.

A 1-kilowatt wind turbine mounted on an aluminum tower high above the lighthouse produces ample electricity to run the recently installed LED light within a fresnel lens. The LED light is three times more efficient than the incandescent it replaced, according to McCurdy. When the 48-volt battery bank nears depletion a diesel-powered backup generator kicks on automatically, tapping a fuel tank that must be filled periodically using 55 gallon barrels hauled out by boat.

There is a plan to add solar panels for a wind/solar hybrid power system that would make the generator unnecessary, except in emergencies. Being entirely off the grid, “the engineering is like on a boat,” said McCurdy, who explained how an inverter converts battery power to a 110-volt household current.

McCurdy proudly noted that the new custom-made storm windows made from reclaimed mahogany match the originals from 1870 and are tightly fitted to retain the passive solar gain when the sun is shining. Situated as it is, well above the bay, the lighthouse soaks in sunlight from dawn to dusk. By early afternoon on a clear New Year’s Day with temperatures in the 20s and a brisk westerly wind, it was nearly 70 degrees on the first floor, all without burning gas or oil.

In the basement is a 3,000-gallon cistern fed only by rainwater collected off the roof. Outside, a simple low-tech outdoor shower uses gravity-fed passively heated water. Indoors, showers with hot water are also available to guests.

In addition to modeling sustainable-systems design and the use of small-scale renewable-energy sources, the lighthouse showcases many of the original household items used by the light keepers for decades, including a cast-iron wood-burning cookstove, a RCA Victrola and a foot-powered sewing machine.

Income from weekly rentals and overnight stays cover about one-third of the total operating budget, according to McCurdy. The lighthouse’s unique accommodations on two floors are available year-round, weather dependent. As part of its on-going fundraising efforts, the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation is planning a kayak and watercraft rendezvous for this summer.

For the time being, however, the refuge and restored lighthouse offer the adventuresome a truly unique opportunity to experience Narragansett Bay in wintry splendor; a chance to add your own story to the unfolding story of Rose Island, and make your own contribution to its preservation and improvement.