WESTERLY — Nonprofit agencies and other organizations will soon have a chance to vie to take ownership of one of the town's iconic attractions — the Watch Hill Lighthouse.
The U.S. Coast Guard wrote to the state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission on Aug. 12 to inform the commission it had determined the lighthouse to be "excess to the needs of the Coast Guard" and was posted for transfer to the federal General Services Administration in accordance with the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.
The 45-foot-tall lighthouse and surrounding grounds are at the southern end of Watch Hill Point. The property's rich history as a beacon for ships goes back to 1745, when the Rhode Island colonial government erected a watchtower and beacon during the French and Indian Wars and the Revolutionary War. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed an agreement for a lighthouse in the area. The current lighthouse dates back to 1856.
The lighthouse was automated in 1986 and leased to the Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association, which continues to hold a license on the lighthouse. The association's mission is to preserve and protect the historic lighthouse. The Coast Guard has leased lighthouses to organizations because of budget restrictions and has shared the cost of upkeep of the facilities.
Under provisions of the federal lighthouse act, the National Park Service will provide applications to interested parties and review and evaluate the applications that are submitted. The service will eventually make recommendations to the federal General Services Administration for conveyance of ownership. Eligible entities will be required to maintain the lighthouse in accordance with federal standards for the treatment of historic properties.
The Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association, in a statement, expressed interest in helping to provide continued access to the property.
"The members of the Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association have been the faithful stewards of the Watch Hill Lighthouse since Aug. 31, 1986. The association is in close communication with the U.S. Coast Guard and is fully aware of this initial step required by the federal government for the transfer of lighthouses. The association is committed to its care of this historic Westerly landmark, and looks forward to working with the U.S. Coast Guard during the upcoming transfer process and to ensuring future and permanent public access to the lighthouse and its property," the statement reads.
The federal General Services Administration recently issued a notice announcing Prudence Island Light, also known as Sandy Point Lighthouse, is available for potential transfer. The notice indicates eligible organizations are federal, state or local agencies, nonprofit corporations, and educational or community development organizations for park, recreational, cultural or historic preservation purposes. The same process is also underway for the Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown.
The three lighthouses remain in use for navigational purposes. The Coast Guard will retain the right to access the properties to maintain navigational equipment, according to the letter from Michael Andrews, environmental branch chief for the Coast Guard.
The state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission will participate in the process by reviewing applications and researching the properties, said J. Paul Loether, the commission's executive director. When the General Services Administration transfers lighthouses to non-profits it typically requires a clause that allows lighthouses to revert back to the federal government if the organization folds, Loether said.
Lighthouses in Rhode Island and throughout the country play an important historic role, Loether said.
"They're hugely important for navigation and they're particularly significant to Rhode Island as a whole. Nationally, they're part of the historic pastiche," he said.
The letter from the Coast Guard to the state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission was delivered by Federal Express.