Uncovering the Layers of Rose Island’s History and Conservation

The past speaks through the landscape on this hidden gem on Narragansett Bay, hosting an Artist Residency late summer


At the core of Rose Island today is the story of a community banding together to spare the tiny 18-acre parcel, situated in Narragansett Bay between Aquidneck and Conanicut islands, from falling to neglect. The Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation formed in the 1980s to convince the City of Newport to accept ownership of the 1.6 acres containing the lighthouse, and the foundation would raise all the funding needed to restore and run the property, at no cost to the city. That story turned a page on August 7, 1993 – National Lighthouse Day – when after years of diligent efforts and sweat equity, the restored piece of history was officially reopened to the public, and the beacon lit for the first time in 20 years.

But what’s being preserved are many stories. “We’re all kind of obsessed with it,” says Sean O’Connor with a smile. The executive director of the Rose Island Lighthouse and Fort Hamilton Trust (RILFHT) since 2022, he was first drawn to the role because it combined his passions of working for local nonprofits and environmental education. Also involved with Newport Pride, O’Connor’s aim in all his work is to make space for people to enjoy special places.   

And Rose Island is one of those in more ways than one. “It’s all these layers of history that extend beyond even just the lighthouse to some of the earlier uses of the island,” O’Connor says. Though many are aware of the lighthouse, which was built in the 1860s to safely light the way for increased shipping traffic on Narragansett Bay, O’Connor shares, “It’s probably so unexpected for people to learn that the French had fortifications on Rose Island in the 1780s when they were allies to the early Americans.”

Following these earlier fortifications, construction on Fort Hamilton began in the 1790s but was never completed. Its intended use was, fortunately, never realized, either. The nine rooms in the barracks – uniquely built to withstand cannon fire with walls five feet thick – were meant to house up to 300 soldiers. Instead, it would serve as a quarantine site for cholera outbreaks in Newport, and later rejoin a different war effort – storing explosives during World War II.

“When you look at aerial imagery [of Rose Island] from that time, it’s nearly devoid of vegetation or at least trees and shrubs,” says O’Connor. This is because Rose Island was equipped with the infrastructure needed to store and fill explosive devices manufactured at the Newport Naval Torpedo Station on nearby Goat Island. After the war, “it started to naturally rewild,” says O’Connor.

During a late-summer visit to Rose Island exploring the nature refuge, the mix of foliage and ruins was part of the lure. Beneath the overgrowth, you can still discern structures from the past, including the remnants of one of two circular bastions from Fort Hamilton (the other is where the lighthouse now stands) and rail tracks that connected explosive storage facilities. Staghorn sumac, spindle tree blooms, and goldenrod bring swaths of color to the main attraction: the lighthouse. Island manager Mike Healy, who motored over guests from Fort Adams a short boat ride away, gave a tour of the property, regaling us with trivia – like the story of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who tied herself to the flagpole during the hurricane of 1938 to
take photos of the storm.

Tours are an essential part of RILFHT’s educational programming – anyone who visits is offered one. This season, O’Connor looks forward to opening up additional museum space in the barracks, which already has a room for overnight stays, to illuminate some of the island’s lesser-known history predating the lighthouse, as well as current conservation efforts.

O’Connor and his predecessors take seriously Rose Island’s position as an important habitat for nesting and migratory shore birds. Its past uses over the decades have informed the maritime scrubland habitat today, and “in that rewilding process, a lot of what showed up there were non-native species, many of which are invasives.”

“We’ve had a really wonderful relationship with Salve Regina University and specifically professor Jim Chase, who’s been leading ongoing research along with his students on our bird populations,” explains O’Connor. “Creating or stewarding the land in a way that makes it attractive for the kinds of birds that can use and need the habitat is important.”

Though historically the island hasn’t had any standing fresh water, and therefore no year-round mammals, O’Connor shares that a marsh on the east side does naturally hold some rainwater and a historic structure from World War II also holds fresh water. Deer have been known to swim over from Jamestown and a mother and fawn may be overwintering on the island – all of these gradual changes, as well as the threat of rising sea levels, are monitored to learn how they’ll impact the habitat over time.

For as much is known about Rose Island, there’s still more to uncover. It was originally named “Conockonoquit” by the Narragansett tribe – which nods to the stemlike strip of beach that appears at low tide, giving the island its rose appearance. O’Connor laments, “We don’t know that much about specific Indigenous history related to the island,” but it’s something RILFHT hopes to gain insight on in the future.

In the evening, taking in the lit-up Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge and surreal, pinprick headlights of traffic crossing it, my partner and I spotted the first of several egrets arriving on the island to roost overnight, and in the morning finally spied the elusive deer. Whether drawn to the stories or ecological spoils, it’s easy to see why the island’s devotees are so obsessed.


Artist Residency

Rose Island’s mystique is ripe with inspiration for creatives seeking an unplugged retreat to make art. Last year kicked off the first Artist Residency, and this year RILFHT takes applications through April 10 for a September 16-22 stay. Visit RoseIsland.org for details.


“During my residency, I began to put together a field guide featuring key species specific to Rose Island’s unique ecosystem. The island was perfect for getting up close with many species, and was an ideal place to disconnect.”

–Ava Varszegi


“I formed fantastic bonds with [the other artists] even though we were all deeply entrenched in our individual projects. I have amazing memories of taking an hour of each day to go swimming while we gossiped about our lives back on the mainland.”

–Whiteley Foster


“What was most valuable to me as a photographer was the early morning and late afternoon light. I would wake up at 4am and be ready for the soft light just before sunrise. Having the sea and big sky all around, and the occasional ship pushing waves on the shore, made things shimmer and change.”

–Sandy Sorlien


“I worked on a series of maps illustrating how the island has changed over time, particularly with respect to its geology. As someone who was used to seeing Rose Island only briefly while passing over the Newport Bridge, actually staying on the island provided me with a unique perspective.”

–Lexi Violet


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