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R.I. beacon offers a ‘light’ adventure

The newly opened foghorn building expands the reach of Rose Island Lighthouse

Rainy weather and a rare chill in the air June 23 in Newport, R.I., could not dim the spirits of a couple celebrating their 43rd wedding anniversary at Rose Island Lighthouse.

The Rose Island Lighthouse, with the foghorn building on the left, as seen by guests arriving on Starfish, a 32-foot Jarvis Newman lobster boat.

Don and Carol Maleto of Meriden, Conn., were given the overnight package as a gift from their daughter, Lisa, who knew how much they loved lighthouses.

“Twenty years ago, I was given a poster of a lighthouse with crashing waves,” says Don, 67. “I liked that image, so I started collecting figurines, and then we started visiting a few.”

Don and Carol met as high school sweethearts, were married in 1966 and have two children, Don, 37 and Lisa, 40. They are a close-knit family who all live in Meriden, although Don and Carol take off on their share of adventures, going as far as Washington state to tour these historic structures.

Don and Carol Maleto found Rose Island perfect for a 'light adventure.'

“I have to thank Don for bringing me to all these unique places,” says Carol. “I’m not adventurous without being encouraged and experiencing the actual thing — being inside a lighthouse and staying over — it’s kind of like living history.”

The lighthouse has been open to guests for more than a decade, but the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation recently also started renting the foghorn building, the small separate brick structure that juts out from the left side of the island.

The foghorn building is the closest you can get to sleeping on the water without actually being on a boat, right down to the slight condensation on the clean sheets. When it comes to anything nautical, one gets accustomed to never being completely dry.

Visitors must be able to navigate some steep climbs, like these stairs to the foghorn building.

“We are really excited about making this room accessible to the public,” says Dave McCurdy, director of the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation. “This room wasn’t used for years and, for a while, it was just kind of a lounge area. It’s great to see it all put together.”

The room is small and cozy with a full bed, a table and two chairs, along with a bookcase, a corner hutch, and a porcelain wash basin in exchange for a sink. The walls are brick, the ceiling and floors are freshly varnished wood and give off a mild scent that mingles with the salty sea air blowing through the windows. I drifted off to sleep with the constant, yet soothing, cry of the gulls and the lonely tolling of the red nun buoy about a mile offshore during a recent stay.

Worth fighting for

The Rose Island Lighthouse was built in 1870 and operated for 100 years, until it was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1970 after the Pell Bridge, constructed in 1969, replaced it as a navigational aid, according to McCurdy. The island itself was used during World War I and World War II to store explosives for Navy torpedoes, but today the only thing kept in the storehouse located near the lighthouse is bottles of wine.

The lighthouse was left abandoned and vandalized until 1984 when a group of concerned citizens formed the Rose Island Light Foundation. The light was given to the city of Newport by the federal government and, during the course of almost a decade, the foundation brought the building back to a usable state.

“It was really a grassroots effort,” says Cornelia Waldman, 51, business manager for Rose Island. “A number of citizens approached the city and told them to just say yes to this. The deal was for the city to own an acre-and-a-half of the island in addition to the building, and the foundation told them if the city complied, they would not ask for a dime, ever.”

The agreement was made and in 1993 the light opened to the public for overnight stays. The next major triumph for the foundation came in 1999 when it was able to raise enough money to buy the other 16 acres of the island. The area is protected as a wildlife refuge and is now a fully operational year-round facility, according to Waldman.

“At the time, a casino and a condo complex were vying for that property,” says Waldman, who has been involved with the foundation for the last 10 years. “Now it can be fully protected.”

Guests at Rose Island tell Waldman that the lighthouse and island represent the best things about America.

“The lighthouse was put there to protect people on the water and to serve as a beacon for travelers on the water,” says Waldman. “A lot of people love coming to Rose Island because there’s a certain freedom there; leaving all your cares and concerns on the mainland.”

A stay at the lighthouse also offers an experience you could never get staying in a hotel, she says. It’s a place where memories are created.

“We’ve had people who have named their children Rose because they were conceived on the island; people have gotten married there,” says Waldman. “It’s a touchstone for so many.”

The memories of Rose Island are one reason McCurdy took the position as director a year ago. The structure has been an integral part of his history during the 20 years he’s lived in Newport.

Dave McCurdy, director of the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, in the newly opened guest room at the foghorn building.

“I grew up sailing here, and I’d pass it all the time,” says McCurdy, who is now 43. “There are thousands more boats that go by this island all the time. It’s a great property and I’m glad to be a part of keeping it preserved.”

An additional perk to the position is that it allows him to get out on the water as much as possible.

“I have my 100-ton captain’s license, and going to work in a boat every day is awesome,” says McCurdy.

‘Soft’ adventure

The lighthouse staff members — five year-round employees — pull no punches about the amenities on the island, which is open to overnight guests all year round. On the lighthouse Web site, they warn visitors staying a night at the lighthouse is considered “soft adventure,” which means visitors should be able to get on or off a boat and bring their luggage uphill 300 feet from the ferry dock to the lighthouse, treading carefully to avoid the seagull and goose guano. The birds use the island as their nesting grounds during the spring and early summer season.

It was certainly a “soft adventure” when I was treading up a narrow, steep set of wooden stairs leading from the foghorn building to the main building in order to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, but the three-sided view of the water early on a misty summer morning more than makes up for the inconvenience.

Guests are picked up at the docks at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I. and are transported to the island aboard Starfish, the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation’s 32-foot Jarvis Newman lobster boat, the gift of an anonymous donor. Individual public tours are limited to July and August when the Jamestown Ferry operates trips to the island on a daily basis.

Living the keeper’s life

Those looking for a little more adventure can become a lighthouse keeper for a week. Seth and Brisja Riggins, a young couple from Fredricksburg, Va., decided to be part-time keepers, taking care of the basic maintenance during my stay. They decided to take on the keeper duties as a learning experience for their 7-year-old son, Brown.

“I saw a PBS special one night about this lighthouse a year and a half ago,” says Brisja, 40. “Brown was 5 then and I said, ‘We’ve got to go do this.’ ”

Brisja wanted Brown to truly experience how the island is self-sufficient and to learn the light’s history. Educational director Reada Evans often does school and group tours from April to October explaining the island’s sustainability.

Seth and Brisja Riggins, a young couple from Fredricksburg, Va., decided a week as keepers would be a good experience for their 7-year-old son, Brown.

“We get a lot of cruise ships that come into Newport in the summer as well as Boy and Girl Scouts,” says Evans, 38. “People are really interested in how everything runs out here.”

The Riggins’ duties included keeping track of the drinking water, which is gathered off the lighthouse membrane roof into a cistern. The initial dirty flow is diverted into a rain barrel and then manually diverted to the basement where it is filtered, chlorinated and stored in a 3,000-gallon pool about 31 inches deep. Rainwater is used for flushing toilets, bathing, cleaning, cooking and washing dishes, so the keepers must record how much was lost and gained. The wind supplies 90 percent of the electric needs by a Bergey 1500 windmill, and the keepers are to take six measurements per day in the lighthouse generator room to track how much electricity was used and created. If there are a few calm days, the keepers must run a 5KW diesel generator to recharge the 24-volt battery bank. The whole lighthouse, including the beacon, runs on one 20-amp service.

“There’s also basic stuff, like scooping up the goose poop, and making sure the overnight guests have taken out all of the laundry such as used towels and bed sheets,” says Brisja. “We also raise and lower the American flag each morning and evening.”

And they are serious about their keeper status. The Riggins have sworn off computers, TV, game systems and even their cell phones, which they keep with them for emergencies, but are kept turned off. The family even went to the library to find a book of basic lighthouse food recipes collected from historic lighthouse keepers.

“It’s a little colder and wetter than we expected this time of year, but on the other hand, you feel like you’re getting a true lighthouse experience,” says Seth, 34. “I work in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and I do statistics, so I spend a lot of time in front of a computer. It’s great to get away from that.”

The Riggins warn that, while being a keeper is rewarding, it is a lot of work and maintenance, even on a part-time basis. The full-time keeper status, which is tax-deductible, requires the parties involved to work six to eight hours for five days of the week, including renovation and restoration work to the building itself in addition to the basic maintenance.

An eye to the future

The next day Riggins, the Maletos and I motor away from the lighthouse aboard the Starfish — six more people who have attached memories to the tiny island. Six more people who have fallen in love with it.

McCurdy hopes more people from Newport will fall to the magic of the island in the near future to remind them that the lighthouse needs continued support.

“I hope in the near future to make it more of a part of the community and less of a tourist attraction,”says McCurdy.

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This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters Section of the October 2009 issue.