I.H. Hathaway Company of Philadelphia, the selected contractor, began work on a wooden, thirty-five-foot-square, and ten-foot-tall caisson for the foundation on July 13, 1896 and finished it just over a month later. The caisson was launched on August 19 and two courses of the cast-iron foundation cylinder were placed atop it before it was placed at the site on the northern end of the shoal in seventeen feet of water on September 12, 1896. The last ironwork for the foundation cylinder was delivered on September 28, and on January 30, 1897 the eighth and final course was in place. To secure the foundation, 1,500 tons of riprap were placed around it.
The cast-iron foundation is one of thirteen that were built for lighthouses using a unique pneumatic construction technique. Prior to being put in place, the caisson foundation was equipped with a central access pipe, housing air supply and pressure tubes, a ladder, and a system to convey sand and muck up to the surface. Once the caisson had settled in place, water was pumped out from the square, air-tight chamber at the bottom. As debris was cleared out by workers in the pressurized compartment, the caisson slowly settled into the bay’s floor allowing additional sections of the foundation to be put in place.
As “unexpected difficulties” occurred during the laying of the foundation, it became clear that additional funds would be needed to finish the lighthouse. These “unexpected difficulties” included the discovery of a layer of quick sand just below the intended target depth for the foundation. As a result, the foundation had to be taken down an additional ten feet.
To mark the completed foundation, a temporary light was established atop a mast projecting above the cylinder on February 1, 1897, and a 1,028-pound fog bell, struck a double blow every thirty seconds, was added on June 1, 1897.
In a December 3, 1898 letter to the Lighthouse Board asking for a temporary halt to construction, the contractor wrote, “Plum beach, Narragansett Bay is the stormiest place we ever worked. It is either raining or blowing half the time.” Work ceased shortly thereafter and resumed in the spring. The lighthouse was finally completed in May 1899, and a fourth-order flashing light was established atop the structure on July 1, 1899. To provide a unique daymark for mariners, the lighthouse had a black foundation and lantern room, while the lower half of the superstructure was painted white and the upper half brown.
Joseph L. Eaton was appointed the first keeper of the lighthouse on June 5, 1897, and he served up until the lighthouse was commissioned on July 1, 1899, at which time Judson G. Allen was transferred from Whale Rock Lighthouse to take charge of the light.
Charles L. Ormsby served over twenty years at Plum Beach Lighthouse, longer than any other keeper. In October 1916, Keeper Ormsby returned from a shore furlough and found fifty-three-year-old John Boldt, his assistant, dead on the kitchen floor. Boldt, who had just been appointed assistant keeper in January of that year, apparently died of natural causes. Mariners reported that the light had burned less brightly than usual the night before Boldt was found dead, indicating that the light’s lamp had been unattended.
The winter of 1918, during which the entire bay froze over allowing automobiles to drive across the ice, proved to be a difficult one for Plum Beach Lighthouse. The shifting of the thick sheets of ice caused a one-inch crack that circled the entire lighthouse to develop two feet above the low tide level. Other vertical cracks extended below the water line. The construction bids received for the repairs were considered too high, and nothing was done for several years. Finally in 1922, the cracks were fixed, and an additional 9,000 tons or riprap were placed around the foundation for extra protection. The repairs held until 1938, when the Great New England Hurricane opened the old cracks, created new ones, and caused quite a bit of damage to the tower. Substitute Keeper Edwin Babcock and Assistant Keeper John Ganze were unable to get away from the station before the storm and had to ride out the hurricane in the tower. Waves as high as thirty-five feet tore open doors and flooded the building. In order to not be washed overboard, the two keepers retreated to the fourth level of the tower and tied themselves to the center pipe containing the weights that turned the lens. The lighthouse and its keepers managed to survive the storm, unlike Whale Rock Lighthouse five miles away, which was carried away with its keeper.
During 1971 and 1972, a professor and graduate student from the University of Rhode Island visited the lighthouse every week or two to conduct research on pigeons. As the floor was covered with up to six-inches of disease-carrying guano, the visitors had to don masks and other protective gear. The researchers discovered that the pigeons had a “birth-control system” that led them to hatch roughly the same number of eggs each year. In the first year of observation, the pigeons abandoned about forty percent of their eggs to apparently compensate from the lack of predators at the lighthouse. During the second year, the scientists removed twenty percent of the eggs shortly after they were laid and found that the pigeons dramatically reduced their desertion level to compensate for the lost eggs.
The Coast Guard and the State of Rhode Island bickered over the lighthouse for years, with neither party wanting to assume responsibility for the structure. In 1984, James Osborn, who was paid to paint the lighthouse in 1973, filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the state to compensate for a rare disease called histoplasmosis he contracted from all the dried guano in the tower. The lawsuit went back and forth between Rhode Island’s Superior and Supreme Courts for years. In June 1998, the courts determined the state was the owner of the lighthouse, and three months later the state paid Osborn $42,000.
In 1988, a private company tried to buy the lighthouse and move it to a condominium complex in Quincy, Massachusetts, where it would be turned into a lighthouse history museum. When this plan became public, the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse was formed to retain the tower and preserve and restore it in place. Neither group, however, was able to move ahead with their plans as the question of ownership was still being debated in the courts.
With the ownership issue resolved, the state gave the title to the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse in 1999. The non-profit obtained $500,000 that same year under the Transportation Act for the 21st Century, and Newport Collaborative Architects visited the site in 2000 an estimated it would cost $955,000 to completely restore the tower, inside and out.
In 2003, restoration of just the exterior of the lighthouse was begun by Abcore Restoration Company. The first step was the removal of over 50 tons of guano left by feathered visitors over the years. The interior was fully cleaned and the outside painted and repaired. In December 2003, the station was relighted for the first time in sixty-two years, using a solar-powered beacon that flashes a white light every five seconds – the lighthouse’s original characteristic.
On April 18, 2006, the center span of the original Jamestown Bridge was demolished, after a new concrete bridge had been completed in 1991 to take its place. Members of the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse were justifiably happy knowing that their lighthouse had outlived the bridge that made it obsolete.
In October 2009, the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse received approval to offer license plates featuring an image of the lighthouse. Proceeds from the sale of the plates would be used to maintain lighthouse, but an initial order of 900 plates was required. The Friends were able to surpass the minimum order in just eight weeks of sales, and since then thousands more have been sold. Thanks to the license plate revenue, the lighthouse received a fresh coat of paint in 2010. If you live in Rhode Island and would like to purchase a plate to help maintain the lighthouse, click here.