When I was much younger, I shared most of the usual ambitions that children have. I wanted to be a policeman, fireman, astronaut and the childhood standard, a cowboy.
A bit later in life, I began a career with a postcard company in Boston. I spent a summer shooting photos and writing short 50 word descriptions of lighthouses along Cape Cod for calendars and postcards. I found myself being strangely drawn to them. I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper.
The problem with becoming a lighthouse keeper is I should have been born in 1852 instead of 1952. The last civilian keeper was Frank Shubert, who passed away in 2003. Since the 1960s, the Coast Guard maintains all automated lighthouses.
The Rose Island Lighthouse is the answer to anyone’s desire to become a lighthouse keeper, if even for a week or overnight.
Rose Island sits just outside of Newport Harbor Rhode Island and across from Jamestown in the shadow of the Newport Bridge. It’s not a big island, only 18 acres. People pass it everyday without giving it much thought or attention.
The Indians called this island “Conockonoquit.” I’m certainly glad I never had to enter a Native American spelling bee. From its shape at low tide, we call it Rose Island.
The strategic location of the island determined its place in history. Standing as a guardian of both Newport Harbor and the entrance to Narragansett Bay, it was first fortified during the American Revolution. Construction of Fort Hamilton began in 1798, remnants of which are still there. The lighthouse was built in 1870 on a circular bastion of the former fort.
During World War II the island saw duty with the Navy as an isolated location to handle explosives for torpedo manufacture. The island remained a property of the Navy until the US government handed it over to the city of Newport, Rhode Island.
Its difficult to reconcile the islands warrior past with its current pastoral beauty. The island has gone from marching troops to meandering wide-eyed tourists. The smell of cordite and TNT has been replaced with fragrant wild roses. What once protected a harbor for warplanes now protects nesting areas for endangered sea birds.
As it has always been, the only way to reach Rose Island is by boat. Today that starts from the Ann Street Pier in Newport with the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation’s boat, the Starfish. Captain Chris Papp meets you at the dock for the short 10-minute ride over to the island and is a fount of information about the history of the island. The first boat of the day starts at 9:45 a.m. and the last leaves the island at 4:10 p.m.
You can also reach Rose Island by water taxi from Jamestown or if you own a boat, there is an anchorage with a mooring close by the dock. With the proper style of kayak, you might even want to try that route and land on one of the beaches near the dock.
Stepping onto the island is a transforming experience. It’s impossible to not be captured by the natural elegance of the acres of wild rose bushes that cover a great amount of the island. The remains of past intrusions by man don’t seem to bother the natural undulations of the landscape.
The lighthouse is hard to put into a category. It’s a rather unique kind of museum. The history ranges from pre-revolution days and continues with the civil and both world wars. The lighthouse begins its history in 1870 and was active for 100 years, deactivated with the building of the bridge in 1970. The first floor of the lighthouse remains the same as it was in 1912.
Most museums and historical buildings keep people and displays separate with a don’t touch policy. Here, you not only touch, but you’re invited to become an active participant. Sit in the chairs, feel how heavy kitchen appliances used to be, pump water into the sink to wash your hands. Best yet, sleep in the beds overnight.
As Kelly, my tour guide on the island said, “We’re a bed and breakfast, without the breakfast.” You can’t put it in the same light as a bed & breakfast, inn, hotel or motel. It’s more what you would call an escape. It falls somewhere between roughing it and spending the night in a themed inn.
The island itself is completely green. The electricity is generated by a wind turbine with a generator as backup. Water is collected in a cistern beneath the lighthouse. Hot water for showers comes by way of solar heating.
There are no phones, televisions, radios or internet. I don’t find that a drawback. Nothing on TV comes close to the view from the windows, and radio pales to the sounds of surf and wind. I can certainly live without my phone and internet for a while.
Signing on as a keeper means you monitor and work with these systems during your stay. This is a soft adventure and normal physical abilities are required. The lighthouse itself is at the end of an uphill 300-foot path. The beach is another steep path. You have to be able to use the stairs to the lantern in the tower and the cistern in the basement.
It’s not all work here. They provide kayaks for exploring the waters around the island and fishing rods. The trails throughout the island are a path through nature and history. During nesting season, April 1 – August 14, parts of the island are closed off to humans. It still leaves a lot to explore.
If you’re ready for a unique experience, there is more information on the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation website at www.roseislandlighthouse.org. You can also call 401-847-4242 between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
Visit the island just once, and you too might want to be a lighthouse keeper when you grow up.