Ahoy mateys, Captain Joshua Card here. Been getting the Portsmouth Harbor station ready for winter, and we have plenty of coal to heat the house and kerosene on hand for the light. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about a lighthouse keeper from down Rhode Island way, Horace Weeden Arnold.
Horace was born on May 17, 1839, into a family of lighthouse keepers on Prudence Island, a large island in Narragansett Bay. He served in the Civil War as a member of Company G, Fourth Rhode Island Infantry. After surviving three years in the war, Arnold nearly lost his life in a shipwreck on the Potomac River on his way home. After the Civil War, Arnold enlisted in the U.S. Navy. For some time he was pilot of the tug Nina, while Admiral George Dewey, then a lieutenant, was in command of the vessel. After his military service Arnold entered the coastal trade, but he decided he’d had enough after his schooner sank in Long Island Sound. He entered the Lighthouse Service in the early 1870s, first as an assistant at Beavertail Light in Jamestown.
A new stone lighthouse was erected offshore from Conimicut Point in Warwick, Rhode Island, on November 1, 1868. The point extends out into the mouth of the Providence River in the form of a dangerous sand bar that was a menace to shipping. The lighthouse was described as a “staunch-looking round tower, built of large blocks of granite.” A fog bell with automatic striking machinery was attached to the tower, and a five-room keeper’s house was added on a pier adjacent to the lighthouse in 1873. On February 27, 1874, Horace Arnold was appointed keeper of this light.
A little over a year later, in early March 1875, Arnold was at the dwelling at Conimicut Light with his young son when drifting ice, driven by strong northeast winds, abruptly smashed into the structure. The Arnolds were lucky to escape with their lives as the house broke apart. They were rescued several hours later by the tug Reliance, captained by Nat Sutton. Sutton spotted Arnold on a mattress on a drifting ice floe, later describing him as “sitting like a man on a magic carpet.” The keeper’s hands and feet were frozen and it was some months before he could fully resume his duties.
According to the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1875, Arnold lost all his furniture, which was valued at $319. It took a congressional appropriation for him to be reimbursed – a full four years later!
After 11 more years at the new, rebuilt Conimicut Lighthouse, Arnold became keeper of the Conanicut Light at the northern tip of Jamestown in 1886. He once made a risky walk out onto the ice from the lighthouse to assist the passengers of a stranded vessel. The boat’s skipper presented the keeper with a captain’s chair for his considerable efforts, and the chair remained a treasured possession of the Arnold family for many years.
Arnold would start up the station’s foghorn on occasion for the entertainment of his young nephew, Archie. The sound thrilled and delighted Archie, who later said, “I shrank into my shoes.”
Arnold remained at Conanicut Light Station until his death from pneumonia in February 1914. He left his widow, Amy (Rathbun), a daughter, and three sons. His funeral was held during a raging blizzard at the Central Baptist Church in Jamestown. Horace Arnold, a lighthouse keeper for 42 years, was buried at the town’s Cedar Cemetery.
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org