This is the second in a series of ghost stories compiled by assistant Warwick Harbor Master Steve Brown while he served in the Coast Guard while stationed at Point Judith Light.
Gould Island is an island off the coast of Newport; the island sits off the navy base in Newport but within view of the tourist area of Thames St. and America Cup Avenue with the tourist shops, visitor center and other amenities that “the city by the sea” makes famous. This was not the case in the 1930s. Gould Island was an isolated island reached only by boat with a navy ammunition depot, a torpedo station and a lighthouse. The lights of the distant city and the navy base were the only visible lights that could be seen from this island.
The lighthouse on the island was manned by the United States Light House Service, and then it merged with the United States Coast Guard.
In July of 1939, the Coast Guard took over the duties of the lighthouse service and local coasties were required to help if there was a vacancy at a lighthouse until a permanent keeper was found. This was a very unusual arrangement, as the lighthouse keepers were civilian employees and the Coast Guard men were military members. Lighthouse keepers were, in fact, allowed to become military members of the Coast Guard or stay at the lighthouse as civil service employees of the Coast Guard, and some remained as civil servants well into the 1970s.
Men at the local Coast Guard stations would do a number of things to decide who would pull the lighthouse duty. They would put names in a hat, draw straws or sometimes a member would just want to volunteer for a change of pace and would request the duty.
The active keeper of the Gould Island light retired and the local Coast Guard was called upon to provide a temporary keeper for a Newport light at Gould Island and surfman McCarthy’s name was pulled from the hat, making him one of the first Coast Guardsman to man a light in Rhode Island after the lighthouse service merged with the Coast Guard. This was actually the second time that he would man a light – the first being Christmas 1939 – and the method of getting the Coast Guard men to man the light was becoming well developed. But the Coast Guard now in charge of lights wanted to show how well they could man the light and take on this additional duty.
Before he retired, the keeper was giving my grandfather, surfman McCarthy, a tour of the lighthouse and keepers quarters, where the station boat would be stored. While in the lighthouse itself, surfman McCarthy thought he heard some noise in the tower and spoke of hearing someone. Speaking to the retiring keeper, the keeper responded with a very matter of fact, “It’s just Earl cleaning the light.”
Earl was apparently an early keeper of the Gould Island light and was a local boy and well liked by all in Newport. Earl wanted to marry a local girl that he fell in love with on one of his journeys over to the city, but this was never to be.
One day Earl and his fiancée journeyed; escorted, of course, to the island, as that was what was required in the Victorian era of the 1800s, and to the light where they spent the day having a picnic and enjoying the island. Earl even showed his bride-to-be the keepers’ quarters where they would make their home and it seemed to have been a pleasant day for all.
When Earl received mail the following week, he was shocked to find that his fiancée had called the wedding off. She was a well-to-do daughter of a sea captain and could not see spending her life as a lighthouse keeper’s wife at such a desolate light within sight of the bustling coastal city of Newport.
It was almost one year later after Earl received that letter that the supply boat arrived with the needed supplies and a local paper for Earl. Earl was shocked and saddened, as the love of his life had married a local ferry captain and would make their home in Newport, in a house that Earl could see from the lighthouse. After Earl received the news, he climbed to the top of the light tower and threw himself off. His body is rumored to have been carried out to sea by the waves, as it was never found. The next day when the supply boat arrived, the captain and crew found it strange that the light was still lit and the door to the walkway around the light tower open but, strangest of all, was Earl’s dog sitting at the foot of the lighthouse stairs, crying for the keeper to come back down the stairs.
For years, and even to this day, people swear that they have seen Earl working about the Gould Island Lighthouse; some say that they have seen him with a cloth in his hand polishing the brass or the glass of the lighthouse, and some say that they have seen him with binoculars looking out to the sea for ships in trouble, but most say that Earl is in the tower looking furlong at the light of the city of Newport staring at a house on the shore where his true love lived.
Knowing of the ghost will not excuse you from your assigned duties in the Coast Guard, and so my grandfather did dutifully fulfill his assignment to this light.
The First Coast Guard District, Maine and New Hampshire, Second Coast Guard District, Boston to New Hampshire, and Third Coast Guard District, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, had merged by this time to form The First Coast Guard District and the lighthouse service had now merged with the Coast Guard – this was going to be a big deal.
Because this was one of the first times that a Coastie was performing duty at the light and an inspection could be carried out, the command decided that a surprise inspection was in order.
First Coast Guard District decided to send a local officer to the light, which had just been done when the lighthouse service was a separate agency, and the surprise inspection was scheduled while my grandfather was at the light. While my grandfather showed the district captain about the grounds, he was very nervous about the final stop he had to make at the light tower, as he had not had a chance to polish the brass, clean the lighthouse glass or even sweep the floor and the stairs of the light. The captain was impressed with the care the lawn had, how the new paint looked on the keepers’ quarters and how the place was, in general, well organized.
But all during this inspection a sound was heard coming from the light tower that everyone thought to be just the wind.
In any government agency, paperwork comes first and so my grandfather sat at his desk filling out the required forms as he nervously watched the captain climb the stairs of the light tower. The captain came down from the tower with a smile on his face and spoke to surfman McCarthy that the floor and the stairs of the light were well clean and no sign of dirt and dust could be found, but he was most impressed with the light tower, as he had not seen such polish of the brass, and how clean the lighthouse glass was, and this was a credit to the Coast Guard at how well the lighthouse station looked.
How could all this get done by one surfman? Who could have been in that tower?
Thank you, Earl!