An A-frame tower was erected on the island in 1885 and fitted with a bell and automatic striking mechanism. The bell was placed in operation on August 10, 1885 and was struck a double-blow every fifteen seconds during thick weather.
Because of its proximity to Newport, Rose Island was not as isolated as many lighthouse stations. However, keepers on duty there still had to deal with extreme weather at times. On February 2, 1876, the wind reached near-hurricane force and shook the tower violently. Two weeks later, another storm dragged the station’s boat and its 600-pound mooring onto the beach, damaging the boat. The wind moved the tower “1 ½ inches each way so that it broke the plaster inside of the house and the glass chimney in the lantern.”
On April 4 of the same year, yet another storm took the tower’s chimney down, and the roof leaked so badly that it was almost “as wet inside as out.” In November, a storm flooded the lighthouse, ruining the entire winter supply of vegetables stored there. The following month was no better according to the lighthouse log: “Stormiest December on record, much damage to property and according to report, much loss of life at sea.”
In 1894, Captain Elijah Davis, who was nicknamed the Fog Eater for his skill at navigating in zero visibility, met his match when he ran his steamer Plymouth aground on the south shore of Rose Island. The 700 passengers on board were offloaded with no injuries, but the ship remained stranded on the island for several weeks.
A brick oil house was added to the station in 1901, and in 1912 a brick fog signal building, home to a third-class reed horn, was built on a rock just west of and below the lighthouse. Julius Johansen was hired as the station’s first assistant keeper in 1912 to help with the extra workload created by the new fog signal. He joined Head Keeper Charles S. Curtis, who had been in charge of the lighthouse since 1887.
Wanton remembered that using the station’s outhouse during the winter was a frigid experience, as the wind would blow up through the opening in the bricked cavity on which the facility sat. One time, a visitor to the station became sick and lost his false teeth as he was vomiting in the outhouse. Keeper Curtis grabbed a ladder, climbed down into the outhouse, and retrieved the teeth, which were just like new after a good washing.
Wanton’s grandmother was a wonderful cook and would often make his favorite treat – blancmange or “Sea Moss Pudding.” Wanton would gather white seaweed from the beach near the lighthouse, and his grandmother would tie it up in cheesecloth and then boil it with milk, sugar, and vanilla. The moss was a source of carrageenans, which served as a thickening agent for the pudding.
Wanton lived on Rose Island until he was about seven and had to go to Newport to attend school. The night before leaving the island, he stood at the screen door facing the big city and cried. He didn’t want to leave the island, as his grandparents felt more like family than his own parents and siblings in Newport.
When he was in his advanced years, Wanton contracted pneumonia and was treated at the Newport Hospital where a CT scan was ordered. Wanton had been told his heart was on the wrong side of his chest when he had an X-ray during World War II, so he was prepared for the doctors to be surprised at his scan, but he wasn’t expecting to learn that he had only one lung! His mother had done well in sending him to Rose Island for his childhood, and perhaps all that fresh air helped him live such a long and productive life. Wanton Chase passed away in Newport in 2008 at the age of ninety-nine, but not before passing on his memories of a childhood spent on Rose Island.
Keeper Curtis, Wanton’s grandfather, served longer than any other keeper on Rose Island and earned two life-saving medals during his tenure. In 1914, he was recognized for rescuing men in a disabled powerboat that was fast going out to sea. Congress passed a bill in 1918 mandating that all officers and employees of the Lighthouse Service that reached the age of seventy had to compulsorily retire. As he was approaching his seventy-ninth birthday, Keeper Curtis was forced to retire, but he did receive the maximum possible retirement, which was three-fourths of his average pay for the final five years of his service.
Lighthouse keepers were not well paid, and they sometimes had to be creative to feed their families. At Rose Island, the keepers grew crops and kept farm animals, which sometimes wandered from the lighthouse grounds into the military compound, much to the officers’ annoyance. Two head keepers at Rose Island, Charles Curtis and Jesse Orton, both kept cows at the light station to supply milk. Curtis kept his cow in a long building behind the lighthouse that was also used for storing explosives.
Paul Stedman, one of Jesse Orton’s grandsons, tells the story of how his grandfather went ashore, bought a cow, and then brought it to the island aboard the Jamestown ferry. The ferry captain tried to maneuver his vessel close enough to the island to let down a gangplank to walk the cow ashore but was unable to find a suitable spot in the shallows. The ferry crew was thus forced to lower the cow into the water and have the bovine paddle her way to shore. With everyone on the ferry shouting their encouragement, the cow barely made it to the island, where she collapsed to the ground. Twenty-four hours passed before she had the strength to stand up and graze.
Rose Island Lighthouse narrowly avoided destruction on August 7, 1958 when two tankers collided in heavy fog near Fort Adams and burst into flames. One of the ships, the Graham, floated into Newport Harbor with the tide, ablaze and with her engines dead, and passed within 200 yards of Rose Island Lighthouse. The walls of the lighthouse became so hot that the keepers were forced to flee the station. Finally, the tide and wind turned and took the ship away from the lighthouse. Eighteen men from the two ships were killed in the incident.
A local group, the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, was formed in July 1984, and with the help of public and private funding, the ambitious organization completely restored the lighthouse over the next several years. Much of the credit for the group’s success is due to Charlotte Johnson, who devoted untold hours to the project. The exterior of the lighthouse was completely refurbished in 1990, and the interior received new wiring, plumbing, and plaster walls, as well as an energy-efficient in-floor radiant heating system. A septic field, a water cistern, and a landing dock were also installed. Altogether the restoration cost over a million dollars.
The lighthouse was opened to the public in 1992, and the following year, it once again became an active aid to navigation on August 7, 1993, showing a white light flashing every six seconds. In 1999, the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation acquired the rest of the island.
The bottom floor of the restored lighthouse serves as a museum, while the upper floor, formerly used by the assistant keeper, is an apartment for modern-day keepers, who live on the island for a week and have the option of working from one to eight hours a day. Those interested in staying just a night or two can stay in the downstairs bedroom.
In 2013, a sixth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room at Rose Island Lighthouse – not the station’s original lens, whose whereabouts are unknown, but a modern replica fabricated by Artworks Florida. The lens was placed atop a new pedestal manufactured by Superior Lighthouse Restoration. With a Fresnel lens beaming from the lantern room once again, Wanton Chase would feel right at home in the lighthouse, except for the noisy foghorn that was located just outside his bedroom.