The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum is situated on the southernmost point of Conanicut Island in Jamestown, Rhode Island. The lighthouse itself was built in 1856 to mark the entrance to Narragansett Bay and is located in an area where beacons have been placed since the early part of the 18th century.
The museum was opened in 1989, and the not-for-profit organization that oversees the stewardship and upkeep of the site was established in 1993, named the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association. The site is Jamestown’s most visited historic landmark as well as the third-oldest lighthouse in North America. Located on 7.5 acres of federal property managed by the U.S. Coast Guard, it is also adjacent to 165-acre Beavertail State Park. In 1977 the Beavertail Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Permanent exhibits and attractions
The lighthouse itself is one of the main attractions at the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum, standing 64 feet tall and emitting light 24 hours a day through an automated 6-second counterclockwise rotation. When foggy conditions arise, the lighthouse has a foghorn that sounds every 30 seconds as a warning, with the on-site Fog Signal Building ensuring this practice. Visitors may ascend the lighthouse on certain days of the year, and are advised to wear suitable shoes if they decide to climb the 49 steps of the spiral staircase as well as the 7-foot ladder to arrive at the observation catwalk. The catwalk allows for unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean as well as Newport to the east and Narragansett to the west. Outside the lighthouse are several placards detailing further information on the history of the lighthouse and its associated buildings. Composting outhouses are available for use as restrooms.
The museum is located within the preserved and historic assistant keeper’s house. Inside, electronic touchscreen tables, storyboards, and docents are available to provide further insight. The museum covers such topics as shipwrecks, hurricanes, lighthouses, and navigation in Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic waters off Rhode Island. There are sea life exhibits, a Narragansett Bay maritime exhibit, a lighthouse exhibit, and more specifically an exhibit about the Beavertail Lighthouse itself. Also within the museum is a small theater showing films about maritime and lighthouse history as well as interactive displays.
Within the museum there is a volunteer-run gift shop that sells prints, tees, sweatshirts, hats, jewelry, and other gifts. Specific Bright Beavertail Lighthouse Gifts are also on display and sold there on behalf of the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association to raise funds. There are donation boxes within the museum and gift shop.
A further attraction is the keeper’s house, which housed the original lighthouse keepers over the years. Now it is home to a permanent exhibit on the Fresnel lens, showcasing the last 4th order fixed “beehive” lighthouse lens to be fitted to the Beavertail Lighthouse. Next door is a small aquarium with ten water tanks, highlighting local aquatic species and providing an insight into ocean life. On occasion, it is possible to touch local crabs from the aquarium under the guidance of the docents, who are also available to discuss further information on the marine life and meteorological aspects of the ocean. At certain times of the year, guided tours are available for groups of 25 or less. Such tours pass through the museum and include expert docent staff, some of whom are founding members of the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association.
The local Native Americans once maintained warning fires at this site, and the earliest use of a constructed beacon was in 1712. In 1749 the Newport Light was built as the third lighthouse in the colonies. It was composed of a wooden tower and light, but after burning down 4 years later it was replaced by a stone structure. As the American Revolution came to an end, British sailors retreated from Newport in 1779 and removed the optics from the lighthouse and burnt the building. In 1856 the tower was built once more, the same tower that stands today. In 1898 the assistant keeper’s quarters were added alongside the keeper’s house. A hurricane in 1938 saw much damage to the whistle house and tower. The U.S. Coast Guard took over command of the lighthouse in 1939, and, after a long history of lighthouse keepers, it was automated in 1989. That year also saw the renovation and opening of the lighthouse, with the museum following shortly after in 1993.
Beavertail Rd, Jamestown, RI 02835, Phone: 401-423-3270