by Peter Randall, MD
Little “Dutch” Island, comprising 81 acres, is located in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay between Jamestown and Saunderstown, RI. Originally it was called “Quetenis” by the Narragansett Indians who sold it to the Dutch West Indian Company about 1636. The Dutch from New Amsterdam (later New York) used the island as a safe place to trade their goods to the Indians for meat, fish and furs. Later the English settlers of Rhode Island used the island to graze sheep.2
For many years it was fortified to protect the West Passage from sea invasion. It is not known whether this included the Revolutionary war era when the Conanicut Battery was activated further south on the western shore of Conanicut (Jamestown) Island. Dutch Island was later heavily fortified with massive concrete gun emplacements. These were started with large granite stone structures near the southern end of the island during the Civil War. The greatest building was during the Spanish American war and World War I. At one time there was a battery of 25-ton cannon which used a 50-pound charge of black powder to fire a 300-pound cannon ball as far as 3 miles. (2)
There were similar fortifications at Fort Getty on Conanicut near the present Recreational Vehicle Camp and at Fort Kearny near South Ferry on the west shore. The fort on Dutch Island was called Fort Greble after Lt. Jon T. Greble who was one of the first officers killed in the Civil War. It included 3 sizeable brick homes for officers and many other frame buildings for families, a hospital, supplies, stables and a bakery, etc. Photographs taken at that time showed almost no trees. (2)
Dutch Island was used for National Guard training up to World War II. It housed as many as 495 officers and men (2).
In 1825, the U.S. Government bought 6 acres on the southern tip of the island with the purpose of establishing a “light station”. The first tower was built in 1826 using native stone from the island. It was 30 feet tall. One of the first keepers was Robert Dennis, whose father had fought in the Revolution and who was also present at the Boston Tea Party. Dennis was 78 years old when he became keeper. His son, Robert, took the keeper position shortly after his father died.
According to Jeremy D’Entremont (a member of the first Board of Directors of the Dutch Island Lighthouse Society), the lighthouse and the Keeper’s House in the mid-1800’s were described as “the worst construction of any in the state”, and the lantern was described as “wretched” (3).
In 1857, the old tower and the Keeper’s House were demolished and replaced by the present 42-foot brick tower and a four-room Keeper’s House. The basic structure of this tower was described in 2007 by consulting engineers’ inspection as still being “very sound”. The cost of these two structures in the 1850’s was $4,000, and included a “fourth-order” Fresnel lens and a fixed white light. In 1878, a fog bell was installed on the west side of the tower to be activated by a clockwork mechanism (3).
In 1924, a flashing red light was installed. Irving Sheldon of Saunderstown wrote that when he was about 11 years old (in the 1930’s), he rowed over to the Lighthouse from Saunderstown to pay a visit to the keeper. He was cordially met by the Keeper John Paul and shown around – including a climb up to the light where Irving described the big heavy Fresnel lens as being floated on a tub of mercury, so it could rotate without friction. The light at that time was lit with kerosene. He also remembers a very big weight on pulleys that ran the mechanism that rotated the lens. It hung in the tower and had to be pulled up “like the weights on a grandfather clock” (1).
John Paul was one of the last Keepers (1929-1931) and his son Louis remembered that this father kept a vegetable garden and a flock of ducks. He said that the fishing off the rocks was “excellent” and that his father would catch “…a bushel of blackfish before breakfast.” He would buy a whole side of beef in Jamestown or Saunderstown, salt it thoroughly and keep if for prolonged use (3).
In 1943, the light was automated and lit by electricity, as a flashing red beacon. In 1947, the military left the Island and in 1950 the Keeper’s House was demolished because of vandalism and because toadstools and moss were growing in the house (3).
(1) Irving C. Sheldon, Saunderstown: personal communication
(2) Schroder, W.K., Dutch Island and Fort Greble: Arcadia Publishing of Chalford Publishing Corp., Dover, N.H. 1998(3) Jeremy D’Entremont: personal communication