Dutch Island Light House Working to save a Narragansett Bay treasure

History

DILS

History of the Dutch Island Lighthouse and The Society

by Peter Randall, MD


Previous Chapter: From Settlement to World War II

Chapter 2

The Society is Formed

In May of 2000, the lighthouse was visited by the DILS Board and Chris Powell of the RI Dept. of Environmental Management (which had jurisdiction over the island). In June of 2000, Ginger Hesse and Roberta Randall of the RI State Historic Preservation Office also visited the lighthouse. They assessed the building to be in need of extensive repairs, but basically very sound, and they named it an Historic Building. That summer, it was discovered that the RI Dept. of Transportation (RIDOT) had an Enhancement Program that was interested in the preservation of historic places and the enhancement of public lands. Specifically, they were interested in the Dutch Island lighthouse as an important aid to navigation, not only in the main channel of West Passage, but also as the entrance to Dutch Harbor. In September of 2000, the building was inspected by Marty Nally of the Campbell Construction Group, which had been involved in the restoration of a number of New England lighthouses. They agreed that the building was basically sound and estimated that its restoration, including the installation of a functioning light, would cost about $106,000. Immediately an application was filed by DILS for funds for restoration and reactivation with an estimated cost of $120,000, and the application was “accepted”. It took another 7 years to complete all the many details of design, planning, restoration and activation along with endless encounters with “red tape.”

While the grant request was for more than the estimated cost, it was realized that costs usually increase and also that about 85% of the money granted by RIDOT were Federal dollars and that they were not always forthcoming. Furthermore, applications and specifications had to fit both Federal and State requirements which differed. 

To start the long process of raising sufficient funds, it was decided to charge dues for membership in the Society, set at $25 for families and $15 for individuals. 

On March 15, 2001, at the urging of Shirley Sheldon, an open meeting was held in the Chapel of St. John’s in Saunderstown. About 50 people attended. Jim Gomes of Scituate, RI brought a large 42” model of the lighthouse that he had painstakingly built to scale inside and out, using approximately 2,242 handcrafted tiny bricks. The present lighthouse you may remember is 42 feet high. Shirley Sheldon made door prizes for everyone attending. According to the minutes, “…the audience was very enthusiastic and several signed up to be on committees for fundraising, merchandising, publicity, history, newsletters, DEM (Department of Environmental Management) contacts and membership.”

In June 2001, another similar fundraiser was held in the Jamestown Philomenian Library with presentations by DILS Board members, on the history of the lighthouse. Jim Gomes brought his lighthouse model again and gave a presentation about its construction. This model remained in the library for quite some time. At this library meeting, an unidentified man surprised the group by returning the original 250mm lighthouse lens that had been in his possession for about 20 years. The anonymous benefactor had been concerned about ongoing vandalism that he saw at the lighthouse and removed the lens from the tower for safekeeping after the lighthouse was abandoned and darkened. It is now on display at the American Lighthouse Foundation Museum in Wells, Maine.

Another wonderful surprise was a gift of $1,350 from Ron Foster and Jim Streeter of the New England Lighthouse Lovers Society (NELLS) for the construction of a secure and safe door on the Dutch Island Lighthouse.  This was a much appreciated boost to the early fundraising efforts and put to good use as designated. NELLS had been instrumental in the reconstruction and restoration of several lighthouses in Connecticut and Ron and Jim were consultants to our Board for several years.

Awareness of the mission of DILS was strengthened by several more fundraisers which were held in those early years. One was at the Saunderstown Yacht Club, dubbed “Bal Musette” with a French theme and exceptional music by the Café Accordion from Minnesota, thanks to the ingenuity of Kate Vivian of The Towers in Narragansett, RI. The dancing for young and old went well into the night. 

Another wonderful party and fundraiser was held in Saunderstown in 2001. There were libations and refreshments in the garden and again with musical entertainment thanks to Kate Vivian. Ken Newman joined the Board in 2002. Ken held two wonderful fundraisers at his home in Jamestown, with the Dutch Island Lighthouse barely visible across the harbor. He obtained support from 17 merchants and 2 caterers from Jamestown and a cadre of high school boys to help with the parking. At the last of these two events, we were serenaded by “Ye Mariners All” an excellent vocal group. 

In 2003 a new structure for the Board of Directors was approved establishing a Board that included more people in the directing of the Society.  The new Board was formed with a Chairman, First Vice-Chairman, Second Vice-Chairman, Corresponding Secretary, Recording Secretary, Treasurer, and three Members-at-Large.