Every Rhode Island coastal town has their maritime ghost stories, be it the fiery ghost ship Palatine seen in Decembers off Block Island, or the mournful cries of pirates who were executed to gravely point in Newport or the ghost of Judy at the Point Judith light house, all over the coast are the stories of the tragic loss from the sea and here in Warwick we have our own ghost at the Conimicut lighthouse.
Just after the Civil War in 1866, it was determined that the shoals of Conimicut Point in Warwick at the entrance to Narragansett Bay a light was necessary to warn the ships of the dangerous shoals and so a day beacon was first built followed by a full lighthouse. The lighthouse was set off shore at the end of the shoal. The light was manned by the keeper of the Nayatt Point Lighthouse across the bay in Barrington; it was necessary for the keeper to row his boat from his quarters at the Nayatt Light one mile to the beacon in the waters at Conimicut point. This eventually led to the extinguishing of the Nayatt Light, and the main light where the shoals of Narragansett Bay becomes the Providence River became the Conimicut light. Eventually the Light House Service built a small keeper’s quarters at the Conimicut light, but this was not to last long. Ice and wind destroyed the keeper’s quarters at the Conimicut light, once again requiring the keeper to live at Nayatt Light and row across the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay to the Conimicut light.
Tending a lighthouse was tedious and dangerous work. The keeper of the light often took his son to help work on the light; the dangers they faced were many. Keeper Arnold’s son fell from the light and was killed; ironically Keeper Arnold and his son had been forced to abandon the lighthouse a few years earlier when the keeper’s house was destroyed by ice and flood waters. Arnold’s son became the first ghost of the Conimicut light.
By 1883, the Conimicut Light was a spark plug-type lighthouse and by 1922, the family of Ellsworth Smith was calling the lighthouse home.
Speaking to the Coast Guard men who tended the Conimicut Light after the Light House Service was merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, it was difficult duty; you were at an offshore light but from this light you could see the skyline of the city of Providence and see and hear the sounds of the local amusement park Rocky Point, despite the excitement just at your door. But weather and work determined if you would be allowed to come ashore and enjoy what the community had to offer.
This lifestyle was taking its toll on the Smith family. Nellie Smith, the wife of Keeper Ellsworth Smith, began begging her husband to allow her and the children to go ashore and spend time away from the light, but working a light was a family affair and it was necessary for Nellie and the children to remain at the lighthouse and help tend the light. This was especially true one fateful day when Ellsworth had to go into town to buy supplies for the lighthouse. Nellie could take no more of being at the isolated light and she found Ellsworth’s keys and unlocked the medicine cabinet. In the cabinet were some poison tablets and she gave each of the children one of the tablets and took one herself; she told the children that it was candy. Nellie and the two children then lay down in the bedroom of the lighthouse to die.
Returning home that evening, Keeper Ellsworth Smith found his wife and 2-year-old son dead from the poison; the 5-year-old was sick but had spit out the pill because he did not like the taste. He was still very ill and Keeper Smith rowed him back to shore and he was taken to a local doctor to recover. The child recovered at his aunt’s home and for that night the Cominicut light was unlit.
By 1966 the lighthouse was automated. A cable had been laid to convert the lighthouse to electricity and it is reported that this was the first lighthouse in the United States to be electrified. This is in dispute because for a short time after the 1938 hurricane, the Prudence Island Light had an electric cable running to it from the local island power plant, but that is another story.
By now, three people had lost their lives at the Conimicut Light. Keepers would report hearing a woman crying on dark nights and sometimes keepers could hear a child playing and items would be moved about the lighthouse. By the 1970s, there were no longer keepers living in the lighthouse and the ghost of the Cominicut Light had all but been forgotten.
The Cominicut Light was automated and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) in Bristol, R.I. In the early 1970s, teenagers would go to the Warwick Light nearby and sneak onto the gated restricted property and slap the lighthouse building three times with an open hand and call Nellie, Nellie, Nellie in order to conjure the spirit of Nellie Smith with the mistaken belief that this was the lighthouse where she had killed herself and her child.
There had been reports from the Coast Guard ANT when working on the Cominicut light that tools would disappear and they would hear what sounded like a young child laughing followed by a woman crying, but a check of the structure indicated nothing was found. The keeper’s quarters are now in disrepair and closed to the public. The city of Warwick is now the owner of the lighthouse, receiving the title in 2004, but is the light still maintained by ANT Bristol with the help of Keeper Arnold’s son? One wonders, because sometimes a tool that you need would appear near you and you were sure that you had not brought that tool off the boat.
But on a clear calm night sitting on Cominicut Point Beach, you may see a ghostly figure who appears to be working on the light and if you listen carefully, you may hear a young child laughing followed by a woman crying.
Editor’s note: An assistant Warwick Harbormaster, Steven Brown has been collecting coastal ghost stories since he was a member of the U.S. Coast Guard more than 30 years ago.