Rhode Island Lighthouses

Brenton Reef Lights History

On March 3, 1851 Congress appropriated $15,000 for the first Brenton Reef Lightship. Silas H. Cottrell & Company of Newport built the LV 14 or Ledyard. It was launched on December 31, 1852 and was placed on Brenton Reef the following March. The lightship was unnumbered while it was stationed at Brenton Reef. It was numbered LV-14 in 1867, while it was stationed at Cornfield Point in Connecticut.

At just a 150 tons, some in the Lighthouse Board felt LV 14 was too small for such an exposed station and wanted it replaced by a larger ship. After just three years at Brenton Reef, LV 14 was replaced by LV-11.The new ship was placed on station on July 1856. On October 19, 1865 a heavy gale tore LV 11 from its anchor and pushed it on to some rocks. She was badly damaged and had to be towed to Newport for repairs. After she was fixed, LV 11 was placed back on station.

In 1877 the typical crew for the Brenton Reef Lightship was eight men. A captain, a mate, a cook and five seamen. John Carr, one of the seamen, had served on the ship for eighteen years. The seamen had two jobs, caring for the ship and its lanterns. There were two lanterns on the ship. Each one contained seven lamps. The lamps looked like old style kerosene lamp with an attached metal reflector. Just before sunset the lamps were lighted and the lanterns were raised to the top of the ship's masts. Each of the lamps' wicks had to be trimmed three times a night. One of the seamen had to climb up the mast three times a night, no matter how bad the weather was.

Brenton Reef lightship LV-14's drinking water was stored in six 500 gallon iron tanks. They were filled with rain water. It was collected in a unique way. When it started raining the scuppers, holes in the sides of the ships that carried water off the deck, were closed. The deck was washed and the scuppers were opened. The dirty water drained off deck. The scuppers were closed again and the deck filled with water. The crew used pans and buckets to scoop up the water and pour it in the tanks.

The third Brenton Reef Lightship, LV 39, replaced LV 11 on November 4, 1897. The 387-ton wooden vessel had previously been assigned to Vineyard South in Massachusetts and Five-Fathom Bank in New Jersey. In August 1905 the battleship Iowa was returning to Newport after manoeuvers. Dense fog hung over Brenton Reef cuttng visablity to nothing. In the fog the battleship hit LV 39. No one on the battleship heard the lightship's bell or her fog whistle. The bow of the lightship was damaged.

One of the tanks had water that was twelve years old and was still good. An 1877 newspaper article stated:

"It is in appearance clear as crystal, and in taste simply delicious, sufficient indeed to gladden the heart of the most enthusiastic hydropash that ever lived ."

Some of the crew on Brenton Reef Lightship would serve for years on the lightship. The ship's cook, Charles Steigen, served on the lightship from 1896 to 1890 without going ashore. He left in 1890 to visit his family in Sweden.

In the earlry 1900's limits were set on how long a crewwmen could serve without a break. They would served twenty or twenty-one days on the lighthship, then ten days ashore, if weather premitted. The closed quarters of the ship was hard on the men. They could never get away from each other. A 1905 New York Times article drscribed how this closeness affected the men.

The sailors say that before they have been ten days on a shift they are bored to death of one anther's company. For five days or so at the start they play checkers and chess, and have an occasional game of cards. That soon palls. [. . .] Five days before it is time for shore-leave some of the men are scarcely on speaking terms.

In March 1935 LV 39 left Brenton Reef for the last time. It was towed to the lighthouse depot in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Its crew picked up the new Brenton Reef Lightship, LV 102, and sailed it back to back to Brenton Reef. The LV 39 was sold in 1935 to Alfred John of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the following years it was used as a floating restaurant and as a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Lightship Flotilla 1504 clubhouse. By the early 1970's LV 39 had become a derelict sunk at a dock at the Peninsula Yacht Club in Boston. She was refloated and was being towed to Beverly, Massachusetts but sank en route

Dive to the Wreck of the Brenton Reef Lightship, LV39

The new Brenton Reef lightship was built of steel and was equipped with a 200 horsepower engine. The lightship had to be refueled periodically. This had to be done at sea, so the lightship could stay on station. This was done by buoy tenders like the USCGC Spar (WLB-403).

The USCGC Spar would travel from Bristol, Rhode Island to the Brenton Reef Lightship. It would get close to the lightship and a crewmen would throw a line to it. A crewman on the lightship would catch the line and haul hoses for fuel and water on board. It took an hour to pump 3000 gallons of oil and 6000 gallons of water to the lightship.

In the late 1950's the Coast Guard decided to replace lightships with light towers that looked like oil rigs. Brenton Reef Offshore Light Station was the second tower to be built on the East Coast. It was built by the Perini Corporation at a cost of $465,000. The unmanned tower received its power by an underwater cable from Beavertail Light. WAL-525 was discontinued on September 28, 1962 and was replaced by the Brenton Reef Offshore Light Station. After the Light Station was activated Rear Admiral Chester L. Harding, Commander, First Coast Guard District sent the following message.


1. You are released from station. Excute your basic orders.

2. Your twenty-seven and one-half years' service on this one hundred and nine year old station has been in the best tradition of the United States Lighthouse Service and the United States Coast Guard."

Aerial View of Brenton Reef Lightship in the 1940s

The Brenton Reef Light tower was removed in 1992. It had become too expensive to maintain and service. It was replaced by a 9X35 LWR buoy.

The CBS Radio Workshop was an experimental radio anthology series that aired on CBS Radio from January 27, 1956 to September 22, 1957. One the episodes on the show was named Light ship. It was based on the book Lightship by Archie Binns. It was about a lightship at the month of the Columbia River. To listen to it use the audio player below.

CBS Radio Workshop - Light Ship

Updated 5/8/2021