Digest>Archives> August 2002

Women of the Light

Charlotte Johnson: Cultivating a Rose in Rhode Island

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Charlotte Johnson and her grandson Andrew aboard ...
Photo by: Paul Johnson

“The whole place is just one big blessing,” Charlotte Johnson has said about Rose Island in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. The restored 1870 Rose Island Lighthouse today features a hugely successful overnight program where guests act as lighthouse keepers during their stay. To a large degree, Rose Island owes its “blessed” state to the dynamic Charlotte Johnson, a woman known and respected throughout the lighthouse community.

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Charlotte Johnson outside the lantern room of the ...
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

A native of Providence, Charlotte moved to Newport in 1975 and soon became interested in protecting Rose Island, in danger at the time of being developed with condos and a marina. The lighthouse was declared surplus in 1984, and Charlotte saw a “great opportunity to combine historic preservation with environmental awareness.” Before long, she founded the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation. In 1985 the group took over the lighthouse property, and they gradually restored the building inside and out.

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Rose Island Lighthouse.
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

In 1992 the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation opened the building to the public, and on August 7, 1993, Rose Island Lighthouse was relighted as a private aid to navigation. Charlotte recalls the fireworks display during the relighting ceremony that lit up the sky, illuminating hundreds of boats that had gathered. “The sounds of the horns, the cheers... It was just wonderful!” she says.

Overnight guests are invariably enthusiastic about their experience at Rose Island, but Charlotte is quick to point out that it’s “not the Holiday Inn.” The guests have certain responsibilities. “We really do trust you to take care of it while you’re here. It’s so refreshing that most people exceed our expectations. Some people will bring sheet sets and towels to leave for us — the opposite of a hotel.”

Educational programs for local schoolchildren, supported financially by the keeper’s program, are a vital part of the picture at Rose Island. “They get the biggest kick out of simply being so close to nature — being sprayed on the boat ride over, looking for shells and sea glass on the beach, pumping water to flush the toilets, looking for snakes, watching out for the birds to see who will get pooped on, and, of course, they love our golden retriever, Wiggins!”

Since 1984, Rose Island and its lighthouse have played a leading role in the lives of Charlotte and her family. “For my son,” she says, “it provided both punishment and reward — if he had done something really awful, the punishment was to shovel six feet of debris out of the gun tub. When he had done something exceptional, it was OK to bring three or four of his friends to spend the night. Of course they had to do a project. Not even my family gets to stay at the lighthouse and get out of doing some work!” Charlotte’s son met his wife-to-be working at the lighthouse. “Suffice it to say,” says Charlotte, “when they were looking for a place to get married that meant a lot to both of them, the lighthouse had no competition. It was a wonderful wedding!”

Charlotte’s commitment to preservation often takes her far from Newport’s shores. “While restoring Rose Island lighthouse, while working on the National Lighthouse Museum Steering Committee, and presently as an officer of the American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee,” she says, “I have had the opportunity to work with some really dedicated and knowledgeable people in the lighthouse community who I respect tremendously. I have experienced and seen with my own eyes what individual and collective human determination can accomplish. I’m really confident the future of lighthouse preservation is in good hands!”

If you would like more information you can contact the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, P.O. Box 1419, Newport, RI 02840. Phone: 401-847-4242 (9:00-1:00, M-F) or visit them on the web at: www.roseislandlighthouse.org.

This story appeared in the August 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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