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Coast Guard deems two Rhode Island lighthouses surplus

New London — Don’t look for the owners of the three lighthouses directing New London Harbor traffic to be snapping up any more of the aging sentinels anytime soon — including two the Coast Guard’s trying to shed off the coast of nearby Rhode Island.

“New London Maritime Society will not be applying for either of these Rhode Island lighthouses,” Susan Tamulevich, the society’s executive director, said Friday of Watch Hill Lighthouse in Westerly and Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown.

Declared excess to the Coast Guard’s needs, the lighthouses, both of which date to 1856, can be had for free. But you have to keep them up, which is the whole reason they’re being made available.

In notices officially issued a week ago, the General Services Administration, the federal agency in charge of such things, announced “eligible entities” interested in a lighthouse or two — federal, state and local agencies, nonprofits, educational services and community development organizations — could submit a letter of interest and inspect the properties with contractors in tow. Applications are due within 90 days of a site visit.

The process, spelled out in the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, is the very one the New London Maritime Society followed in landing New London Harbor Light at the foot of Pequot Avenue in 2010; Race Rock Light at the eastern end of Long Island Sound off Fishers Island, N.Y., in 2013; and New London Ledge Light at the entrance to the harbor in 2014.

Tamulevich said the availability of the two Rhode Island lighthouses was “disappointing news.”

“Lighthouses are not obsolete,” she wrote in an email. “These two lights (as well as the three owned by NLM) are all active aids to navigation. They are important back-ups, like street signs in support of today’s GPS — a system that is not infallible. Lighthouses are important day markers for the ferries, fog sirens in a storm, beacons in the dark. They are significant, meaningful, historic landmarks.”

Tamulevich said the federal government was asking a lot in turning over lighthouses to small, nonprofit groups while providing them with little support. Potentially worse, she said, are cases in which lighthouses are auctioned to insolvent entities or individuals who pass away.

She cited the example of Little Gull Light, a lighthouse off Fishers Island that the society sought to acquire in 2012. The businessman who outbid the society died a couple of years ago, Tamulevich said.

At times, the society has struggled to maintain its three lighthouses.

Litigation between the society and neighbors living near New London Harbor Light prevented the society from conducting tours of that lighthouse for years. No tours of the hard-to-reach Race Rock Light have taken place since 2019. The society intends to unveil plans for the property’s preservation this summer.

Hoping to reinstate New London Ledge Light tours, the society’s looking for a licensed captain with a boat.

In good hands

Current operators of the “excess” Rhode Island lighthouse properties are seeking to retain control of them.

“We’re very much looking forward to being chosen to continue our stewardship of the lighthouse,” Ann Snowden Johnson, president of the Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association, said Friday.

She said the association, supported by grants and donations, has been licensed to oversee Watch Hill Light since 1986, and is required to maintain the property “financially and physically.” The 4.5-acre site includes a 45-foot lighthouse tower and an attached two-story, brick keeper’s dwelling, as well as other buildings. It’s located on a peninsula accessible by Lighthouse Road.

If the association gets to keep the lighthouse, the change in ownership will be “mostly emotional,” Johnson said. “The group that’s part of the association, all the directors, are from Greater Westerly. Everyone has a deep and abiding love for the town and this iconic landmark. It’s truly a labor of love to preserve it in perpetuity.” 

In anticipation of the Coast Guard’s move to rid itself of Beavertail Light, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Town of Jamestown and the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association agreed to have the DEM pursue the property. The association has long operated the museum and helped maintain the site, which includes the 64-foot granite lighthouse at the mouth of Narragansett Bay.

The original lighthouse was built in 1749 and was burned down by British soldiers leaving the Newport area in 1779. The foundation remains.

"We are engaged in the surplus process with a plan, and remain optimistic about acquiring and preserving this gem for generations to come,” Gail Mastrati, assistant to the DEM director, said in a statement.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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