Digest>Archives> May 2006

Ernest Stacey, the Last Keeper of Dutch Island Light

By Jeremy D'Entremont

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Keeper Ernest Homer Stacey. Courtesy of Crissie ...

(The following is from a chapter on Dutch Island Light from the upcoming book, The Lighthouses of Rhode Island, to be published by Commonwealth Editions in spring 2006.)

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On a map, Dutch Island looks like a chunky tadpole swimming upstream in the west passage of the Narragansett Bay, with the lighthouse at the end of its tail. It’s nestled between Saunderstown (part of North Kingstown) to the west and Jamestown (Conanicut Island) to the east, and is a little less than a mile offshore from both communities.

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Keeper Ernest Stacey with his son, Robert, at age ...

The first Dutch Island Lighthouse, established in 1827, consisted of a 30-foot tower and attached four-room dwelling built of slate and other stones found on the island. A new square 42-foot brick tower was erected in 1857 along with a new keeper’s house, with the tower attached to its southern side.

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Keeper Stacey and his son, Robert (age seven), in ...

Many keepers and their families had come and gone from Dutch Island when Ernest Homer Stacey, originally from Rouses Point, New York, arrived in 1937 after about six years as an assistant at Rhode Island’s Whale Rock Light. His daughter, Crissie (Stacey) Derouchie, who was born after her father left Dutch Island and remarried, recalls many of her father’s stories of life at the lights.

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The keeper’s house on Dutch Island was demolished ...

"Daddy always referred to himself as keeper of the beacon," says Crissie. She remembers her father telling her that when he arrived at the lighthouse, he climbed to the top and pretended to be a kid sailing on a ship across the sea. According to Stacey’s sister-in-law, Pat Stacey, Ernest said after arriving at Dutch Island that he left, he felt he "had finally come home."

Pat Stacey describes Ernest as a dashing, charming gentleman who could "cook up a storm" and was a wonderful dancer. Keeper Stacey loved life at Dutch Island and would sit on the rocks and stare out at the sea for hours. He once told his brother that he felt the ocean was calling to him. The fishing around the island was the best he had ever experienced, he said, and he never returned from a fishing trip empty-handed.

The Stacey’s son, Robert, had to row ashore every day to pick up a ride to school. He was unable to attend school regularly, because it was difficult to make the trip to the mainland when the weather was bad and the seas were rough. After a while, Robert would stay with his grandmother during the winter, making it easier to attend school.

Ernest Stacey loved life at Dutch Island, but his wife, Dot, was a "city girl" and wasn’t so pleased. Crissie Derouchie remembers her father saying that Dot would always get angry with him, because "he was like a little kid at the light."

Dot longed for a more active social life, warmer weather and less fish to eat. Keeper Stacey once tried to teach his wife to fish, but a fall on the rocks ended that experiment. Stacey laughed so hard at his wife, lying upside down with her feet in the air, that she became furious and refused to ever fish again.

Dutch Island held countless annoyances for Dot Stacey. Before, she’d use the water from the cistern in the basement for washing their laundry, she insisted on boiling it because she claimed it had an odd smell. Dot once hung the laundry outside to dry, only to have a sudden strong wind blow it into the bay. She wasn’t at all amused when Keeper Stacey fished out her bloomers three days later.

Pat Stacey also recalls Dot telling her that something about Dutch Island "gave her the creeps." One summer day, she was scrubbing floors when she thought she heard Ernest come in the house and go upstairs, followed by the sound of footsteps overhead. She called to him, but there was no reply. A trip up the stairs made it clear that not only was nobody there, but a hall window that Dot had left open had been closed. Ernest insisted that she had simply heard the wind rattling through the old house.

In February 1947, the Coast Guard automated the light, and Ernest Stacey left with his family. In 1958, the state of Rhode Island acquired the island, except for the lightstation.

Dutch Island Light was discontinued in July 1979.

A lighted buoy replaced the lighthouse, and the Coast Guard declared it surplus property. It was transferred to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) in 1984.

The Dutch Island Lighthouse Society (DILS) was founded in recent years as a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation and is working to restore the lighthouse. It looks like the design phase of restoration will soon commence, with work on the tower hopefully starting sometime in 2006.

This story appeared in the May 2006 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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