The west passage of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, the most direct route from the south to Providence, was bustling with vessels carrying coal and other freight in the late 19th century. Plum Beach Lighthouse, a 53-foot “sparkplug” style tower on a cylindrical caisson sunk 30 feet into the bottom of the bay, was established in 1899 to help mariners through this busy and dangerous area.
Today drivers on the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge between North Kingstown and Jamestown view the lighthouse as they pass by. For decades it was more of a rusty eyesore than historic monument, but that’s all changed thanks to a determined band of local preservationists.
Its history makes it clear that this lighthouse is a stalwart survivor. The caisson base was cracked by ice during the severe winter of 1918, and on September 21, 1938 the tower and its keepers narrowly escaped disaster in a tremendous hurricane that struck without warning. This harrowing episode is described in detail in the book The Plum Beach Light: The Birth, Life and Death of a Lighthouse by Lawrence H. Bradner.
Assistant Keeper John O. Ganze and his friend, a substitute keeper named Edwin S. Babcock, took refuge in the fourth level of the lighthouse only to see wrecked boats and parts of buildings sweeping past them. Thirty-foot waves broke open a door in the tower, washing away furniture and the station’s boats. The force of the waves reopened the 1918 cracks in the caisson. The men went as high as they could, to the fog bell room, where they lashed themselves to a pipe.
It wasn’t until the next morning that the men could get a clear picture of how lucky they were to be alive. Ganze used the light to signal the keeper at Whale Rock Light five miles away. There was no answer, as Whale Rock Lighthouse and Assistant Keeper Walter Eberle were lost in the hurricane.
In 1941, the completion of a new bridge between North Kingstown and Jamestown made the lighthouse obsolete as the Coast Guard determined that the bridge’s lights were sufficient for navigation. Birds and the elements soon took control of Plum Beach Light. The tower lost all its doors and windows and became badly rusted. The Coast Guard claimed that the lighthouse became state property by eminent domain, but the state denied ownership.
Then in 1973 James Osborn of Newport was hired to paint the lighthouse. Osborn later claimed that he became severely ill and suffered permanently blurred vision from exposure to the guano in the tower. He filed a lawsuit against the state in 1984, and the case was in and out of the courts for 14 years.
Meanwhile, a local woman, Shirley Silvia, and others founded the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse but the nonprofit group made little progress at first due to the question of ownership. Lawrence Bradner has nothing but praise for the efforts of Shirley Silvia. “If any one person can be honored for the work that has been accomplished in restoring the fabric of the Plum Beach Light, it is certainly Shirley Silvia,” he says. “The persistence with which Mrs. Silvia kept on in spite of many discouragements in working for the goal of restoration is remarkable. There are many others who are members of the Friends who are her loyal collaborators in this.”
Finally in June 1998 a Superior Court ruled that the state “owned and controlled Plum Beach Lighthouse” at the times relevant to Osborn’s suit. This paved the way for the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse to acquire the lighthouse. At a ceremony in October 1999 the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management transferred the 100-year-old structure to the nonprofit organization. Officially, the title wasn’t transferred until June 2001 when it was approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly.
In 1999 the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse were approved for $500,000 under the Transportation Act for the 21st Century. In August 2000 a team from Newport Collaborative Architects visited the lighthouse and found that the interior floors were obscured under several feet of bird droppings, making an accurate assessment difficult. A preliminary estimate of $955,000 for a complete restoration of the lighthouse, inside and out, was made in October 2000.
It was eventually decided to move forward with a restoration of the exterior first. “It’s been a long haul,” said Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse Vice President Alda Ganze Kaye, daughter of the last keeper, John O. Ganze. “And we are looking forward to it finally being restored.” Barbara Petrarca, supervising landscape architect for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, told the Newport Daily News, “The lighthouse just sits out there so sad by itself. We’re going to fix that. Restoring these old treasures that Rhode Island has is important.”
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation put the restoration up for bid, and in early 2003 a contract was awarded to the Abcore Restoration Company of Narragansett, RI. The company had never worked on a lighthouse before, but one of their most prominent restorations was the historic Narragansett Towers building, one of the Rhode Island coast’s most famous landmarks.
The work on the lighthouse began in late June. The Abcore crew under Keith Lescarbeau removed a half-inch layer of rust from the outside of the caisson and added reinforcing steel bands to the caisson to prevent further damage. The stone riprap around the caisson was also reinforced with the addition of 160 tons of new stone. An astonishing 52 tons of guano was removed from inside the tower with the help of Clean Harbors, and it’s hoped that the interior can be fully restored in the future. The upper gallery and its railing were repaired, new doors and windows installed, and eight new glass panels were installed in the lantern. The lighthouse has been repainted in its original color scheme with the lantern and caisson black while the tower is painted brown on its upper portion and white on the lower half.
Bob Onosko of Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse, a former Coast Guard lightkeeper himself, says, “I think we were most fortunate to have Keith Lescarbeau as the restorer. He seems to me to have taken a personal interest in the project.” The work done by Abcore has exceeded what was called for in the original contract. The plans called for the removal of the columns and roof on the lower deck. But Abcore had molds made of the old iron columns, which had greatly deteriorated, and they have been recreated in fiberglass by boatbuilder Lloyd Beckman. At this writing it hasn’t been decided if a new roof will be installed, but the restored framework of the roof will at least be put back in place.
Abcore workers — four to six of them at a time — put in 12 hour days, six days a week at the lighthouse from late June into October. The work is expected to be completed by sometime in November. Every step of the restoration has been time consuming due to the logistics of getting materials to the offshore tower. But despite some rough weather, the crew stuck to their schedule and never missed a day.
Keith Lescarbeau says that Abcore’s job has been made easier by many people in the local area who have stepped in and helped. “A lot of talented people have been involved who’ve helped the project come together in a positive way,” he says. He sums up his feelings about the lighthouse by saying, “It’s more than just a facade. I’m really happy to be a part of it. It’s a privilege.”
Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse member and North Kingstown resident David Zapatka, an award-winning photographer and videographer with more than 22 years experience, is producing a documentary on the lighthouse restoration. “My job is to document world events,” says Zapatka, “and this was a good fit since I live in the area. I enjoy doing it because it feels like something important.” Zapatka visited the lighthouse about a dozen times during the restoration along with several other trips to the vicinity to shoot video and still images. He hopes that the documentary can someday be shown to visitors inside the lighthouse so they can see the extent of the restoration. It will most likely be shown on television in Rhode Island as well.
In October, Alda Kaye and Shirley Silvia, along with Shirley’s husband Doug, were taken for a visit to the lighthouse. Silvia had never been inside before, and it was Kaye’s first visit since she was a young girl. Lescarbeau said that Kaye and the Silvias were “like kids on Christmas morning” when they got into the lighthouse.
“I must say that I felt my father’s spirit there for sure. It was wonderful,” says Kaye. “It was also wonderful for Shirley, and seeing her smile at what she has been very instrumental in helping to happen was a joy.” Kaye was impressed by the work done by Abcore. “Keith is a very conscientious guy and deserves lots of good credit for the care with which the work is being done.”
Besides being a significant reminder of the vital maritime history of Narragansett Bay, the lighthouse today stands as a symbol of a small group of people who wouldn’t give up. The late Rhode Island Senator John Chafee, a champion of lighthouse preservation, said it best in 1999. “I tip my hat to Shirley Silvia and the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse, Inc.,” he said. Through their dogged persistence, they have made this day possible. Three cheers!”
This story appeared in the
December 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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