WESTERLY — Work to improve the grounds surrounding the Watch Hill Lighthouse is nearing completion.

The catalyst for the project was a U.S. Coast Guard-initiated remediation effort designed to remove lead from the soil surrounding the iconic fixture. In the years prior to 1978, lead paint was used on the lighthouse. Chips of paint containing lead fell to the ground during painting projects. The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act includes a stipulation that the U.S. Coast Guard undertake remediation projects. 

The Coast Guard conducted an environmental site investigation to determine the extent and depth of lead contamination. Based on the results of that investigation, the Coast Guard hired an environmental services company to excavate lead-impacted soils and replace it with clean fill. The cost to remediate the property was $220,636 in federal funds.

The Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association, which runs, maintains and preserves, the lighthouse piggybacked on the Coast Guard project to perform "some much-needed repairs," said Ann Snowden Johnson, president of the association, during an interview and tour Wednesday. The association's part of the project involved repaving a driveway adjacent to the lighthouse, sidewalk replacement, and construction of a new small outdoor terrace gathering area.

The new sidewalks meet width and other Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

"It allowed us to get accessibility features that we have wanted for a long time so we are now within ADA  guidelines ... from our perspective that just centers the lighthouse even more as a destination and place where people can come to appreciate the history of the ship-building industry here and throughout Westerly," Johnson said.

By improving accessibility, Johnson said the association can better carry out one of its central missions — education about the lighthouse and surrounding property that offers sweeping views of the Atlantic to Block Island.

"We're really trying to increase the awareness of this site ... this is where Westerly got its money. You have Westerly granite and you have the shipping industry all along the Pawcatuck River. Those ships built by Westerly businesses provided the wealth that generated New England as a trading community, so this is a pretty significant little plot here," Johnson said.

The work was approved by the Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Management, the state Coastal Resources Management Council and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission. Construction of a small rain garden, requested by the DEM to help manage stormwater runoff, is expected to be completed soon.

The association absorbed the $60,000 cost of all renovations outside of the remediation conducted by the Coast Guard and did so in part with a grant from the Roberts Foundation.

In the future the association hopes to perform new renovations on the lighthouse itself and return historic details to the adjacent former residence building. Work to "modernize" the residence in 1978, when the Coast Guard continued to staff the lighthouse with active-duty personnel, did not consider historic preservation standards. Coast Guard staff remained at the lighthouse until 1986.

"The changes they did didn't carry any historic value ... what we're slowly doing is bringing it back to its historic originality," said Andrew Barber, Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association vice president.

Shipping hub

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 Revolutionary War. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed an agreement for a lighthouse in the area. The current lighthouse dates back to 1856.

The Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association formed in 1986. Around that time, Johnson said, the U.S. Coast Guard was decommissioning multiple lighthouses, and the Watch Hill Lighthouse was on its radar. The lighthouse is now automated.

The lighthouse grounds, which is federal property, has been closed to the public since November, when the remediation project started. It is normally accessible from 8 a.m. until sunset throughout the year. The association hopes to reopen the property in mid-June depending on state COVID-19 reopening guidelines.

Barber said the privately-funded association strives to keep the property open to the public but is mainly focused on preservation and must consider homeowners who live on the private road that leads to the lighthouse.

"It takes a tremendous of time, energy, and effort to keep this place going ... we're working hard to try to keep it like it is for as long as possible," Barber said.

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