Water views and secret WWII history at Beavertail park

Start with the scenic and historic Beavertail Lighthouse, then explore the peninsula’s hidden natural features and vestiges of little-known military history


  • Access: Off Route 138 east, take the first exit after the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge. Drive six miles through the center of Jamestown and by Mackerel Cove to the park entrance.
  • Parking: Available, at public lots.
  • Dogs: Allowed, but must be leashed.
  • Difficulty: Easy. Moderate on the rocky shoreline.

JAMESTOWN — Beavertail Lighthouse, a beacon that has guided ships through shoals and reefs at the entrance of Narragansett Bay since 1749, is the best-known landmark on the southern tip of Conanicut Island.

The recent announcement that the U.S. Coast Guard is giving up ownership of the third-oldest lighthouse in the country has only increased its profile.

I observed the 64-foot tower during a recent hike in Beavertail State Park, but I also wanted to see the lesser-known, hidden natural features on the peninsula and what’s left of its top-secret military history. I found some of both.

I set out with two buddies, George and Tom, from Parking Lot 3. The view on a crystal-clear morning was stunning down the rocky coast and across the East Passage, with Brenton Point visible about two miles away. Sailboats of all sizes, power boats, tankers, ferries and fishing boats cruised the Bay.

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Relic of a 1859 shipwreck

Just down the banks from the lot are Payton’s Stones. The huge, carved granite blocks were lost at sea during a snowstorm in 1859 when the schooner Harvey F. Payton, which was carrying the blocks from Boston to a government building site in Alexandria, Virginia, was shipwrecked. The Hurricane of 1938 flung the stones onto the shore.

We walked north on the grassy banks and found the earth-covered Battery Whiting munitions bunker. Part of Fort Burnside built in 1942, it served as a key post in the picket-line defense of the coast during World War II. The circular gun turrets for the cannons that guarded the Bay and were manned by the R.I. National Guard are still there.

At low tide, we walked down the banks and northeast on the white-streaked, dark rocks. In about a quarter mile, we reached Lion’s Head Gorge, named for the crash of the waves into the cleft that sounds like a lion’s roar. Our arrival scattered dozens of seagulls perched on the 30-foot cliffs that line the chasm.

I could have stayed all day watching the white plumes of salt spray, the lighthouse back over my shoulder, Castle Hill across the passage and the Pell Bridge to the northeast. But we still had miles to go.

Vestiges of military operations

We retraced our steps, climbed a sidepath up the banks and picked up the Green Dot trail, which runs through a thicket of small trees and brush. We found an abandoned Quonset-style hut and several cement anchors with eyelets that may have held cables to support 12 antennas, a transmitter and radio equipment. The tallest antenna, at 624 feet, was named 1-Juliet. The U.S. Navy built the station in the 1960s with new technology to communicate covertly with submarines underwater and with a network that included Sachuest Point and Newport.

Two months after the antenna was installed, a small plane flying from Washington, D.C., hit a guy-wire and crashed, killing the pilot and two passengers. George recalled that he and his father, who had helped set up the facility, drove to the site after the crash to repair the cables. The system was later dismantled.

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We continued west, crossed a road and saw to the left a communications tower and two observation platforms that surrounded a brown-shingled house. During World War II, the building served as the Harbor Entrance Command Post, which monitored submarine nets, minefields and listening posts in the passages.

Disguised as a farmhouse, the bombproof building had walls 3 feet thick and a bunker underneath. The road to the property is now marked “Authorised Vehicles Only” and the building is leased to a tenant, according to the parks owner, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Crossing the park’s entrance road, we took the red dot trail north through white, fragrant wildflowers. Songbirds chirped in the hemlock groves. We walked over paved paths that were part of SprayCliff, a secret research, development and testing site. U.S. Navy and MIT engineers worked there to design night radar that U.S. planes used to intercept Japanese aircraft. There are almost no other remains of the buildings, radar towers and outbuildings.

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Challenging trek along the cliffs

The unblazed trail looped west and along cliffs above the West Passage, with views north to Quonset, west to Narragansett and south to Point Judith, 7.2 miles away. We followed the cliffs, passing side spurs down rocky ledges to tiny beaches. The steepness and loose rock on the paths looked dangerous.

After about a mile, we headed down to the rocks through rosa rugosa hedges with white and pink flowers and walked south by tidal pools and rock formations. We reached the point, a beautiful but treacherous spot just below the lighthouse. During storms, scuba divers, fishermen, tourists and thrill seekers have been injured, or worse.

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Among the rocks is the octagonal base of the wooden lighthouse built in 1749. It burned down and was replaced by a rubble tower until 1856, when the current granite lighthouse was built.

The Coast Guard plans to continue to operate the automated beacon but will give up ownership, and the DEM has submitted a letter of interest to acquire the property.

Surrounding the lighthouse are markers for several offshore features, including the base of Whale Rock Light, which was destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938 and looks like a submarine turret, and the location where U.S. warships sank the German U-boat 853 in 1945.

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We returned to Lot 3 after hiking about 4.5 miles over 2½ hours. Before leaving, we drove the loop through the 153-acre park, finding another bunker and gun turret left from Battery 213. By late morning, sunbathers, readers, picnickers, photographers and sightseers filled the rocks and grasslands on the peninsula, which is shaped like the tail of a beaver.

It’s quite a place, a unique mixture of stunning natural beauty, striking rock formations on the coastline and a secret military history.

Trail Tip

Beavertail State Park is free and open to the public from sunup to sundown. Learn more about the lighthouse, the museum and when they are open at beavertaillight.org.

John Kostrzewa, a former assistant managing editor/business at The Providence Journal, welcomes email at johnekostrzewa@gmail.com.

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