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Man, 82, remembers his years as keeper of Conimicut Light

Fred Mikkelsen was a lighthouse keeper at Conimicut Light. (WJAR)
Fred Mikkelsen was a lighthouse keeper at Conimicut Light. (WJAR)
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A lighthouse keeper who literally kept the fires burning at Conimicut Light is ecstatic.

The historic structure is being saved, with a federal grant worth more than $750,000.

Eighty-two-year-old Fred Mikkelsen was 18 years old when a series of unexpected life circumstances changed the trajectory of his life. He graduated high school, the job he had lined up fell through, so he joined the Coast Guard. But instead of sailing the high seas, after a brief stint at Warwick Neck Lighthouse, he was assigned to be the main lighthouse keeper at Conimicut Light in 1958.

He was told by the higher-up Coast Guardsman dropping him off that first day, “When you step off this boat, you'll be stepping back in time to the 1800s."

There was no electricity or running water.

"The water we collected on the rain roof," explained Mikkelsen, that went in to a 1,500-gallon tank, after the roof was scrubbed cleaned before a forecasted rain storm.

His job -- with a rotating crew of at times one or two others -- was to maintain everything, and most important, keep the kerosene-driven light bright and always in working order, an “incandescent oil vapor, 35 millimeter” light “that took regular maintenance, and you know, keeping the lens clean."

There were weekly trips to Warwick for supplies and food by boat, but in his off time he discovered oil painting and do-it-yourself books.

He extended what was supposed to be a two-year stint to four years because electricity was coming to the lighthouse in the summer of 1960.

Then came Hurricane Donna that September, with 8 foot waves of top of the more than 10-foot storm surge, that lapped the structure, with winds over 100 mph.

"When they'd break against the light, they'd rush around the tower,"Mikkelsen said.

Fred didn't know it at the time, but looking back, he said he learned life's most important lessons in his four years at the lighthouse.

"I learned that I could try to do anything. Maybe you'd never do it as well as you'd like, but you could still do it. Don't limit yourself," he said.

The $775,000 grant will be used to evaluate then restore Conimicut Light, with an interactive kiosk at Conimicut Point Park, to tell the stories like what Fred experienced first-hand, making new memories for future generations to come.

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