A Brief History of Rhode Island Lighthouses
Rhode Island's first lighthouse, Beavertail Light, was built in 1749. It was the third lighthouse built in America. It was constructed of wood and burned down a few years later. It was replaced with a stone lighthouse that lasted for 100 years before it was replaced by the current Beavertail Lighthouse.
In the first three decades of the 19th Century, as shipping increased along the East Coast, eight lighthouses and a lightship were built in Rhode Island. Three of them, Watch Hill Light, Point Judith Light and Block Island Light, were coastal lighthouses built to aid ships traveling from Boston to New York. The other Lighthouses, Dutch Island Light, Poplar Point Light, Warwick Light, Nayatt Point Light and Goat Island Light, were built in Narragansett Bay.
During the 1840s and the 1850s only four new lighthouses, Bristol Ferry Light, Conimicut light, Lime Rock Light and Prudence Island Light, were established. Most of the early Rhode Island Lighthouses had to be rebuilt because of poor construction and insufficient maintenance. An 1855 report described one of the lantern and stairs of the lighthouses as "extremely bad". Block Island North Light had to be moved because of soil erosion.
New Lighthouse construction in Rhode Island stopped in the 1860s. This was probably due to the Civil War. In 1867 Block Island North Lighthouse was moved and rebuilt, due to erosion.
There were eight lighthouses built in Rhode Island in the 1870s. Most of them, Bullock Point light, Sabin Point Light, Pomham Rocks Light, Fuller Rock Light and Sassafras Point Light, were built in the Providence River. After the Civil War, passenger and freight shipping increased on the Providence River. Ship owners and ship captains wanted more lights to protect ships and passengers. Musselbed Shoals Lighthouse was built in 1873 to guide ships through the treacherous entrance to Mount Hope Bay. Block Island Southeast Lighthouse and Rose Island Lighthouse were the other lighthouses built in Rhode Island.
In the 1880s six new lighthouses and a lightship station were established in Rhode Island. The Old Colony Steamship Company, a freight and passenger line that traveled between New York and Fall River, maintained private lights on Gould Island, Gull Rocks and Hog Island Shoals to aid their ships traveling up and down Narragansett Bay. The government thought that these lights weren't reliable and replaced them with Gould Island Lighthouse, Gull Rocks Lighthouse and Hog Island Shoals Lightship. Poplar Point Lighthouse was replaced with Wickford Harbor Lighthouse.
Whale Rock, a dangerous obstruction at the entrance to the West Passage of Narragansett Bay was a hazard to shipping. At least a couple of ships had sunk after hitting it. Whale Rock Lighthouse was built on it in 1882. Sakonnet Point Lighthouse was built in 1884. It was a remote light and had a hard time keeping lighthouse keepers.
There were only two Rhode Island Lighthouses, Castle Hill Light and Plum Light, established in the 1890s. Castle Hill Light was built in 1890 near Newport. The money to build it was appropriated in 1886 but the site where the light was going to be built was near a mansion owned by Alexander Agassig. He refused a right of way to the site. It took two years before the government was able to obtain a small right of way from Agassig. Construction started on Plum Beach in 1896. A metal foundation was placed on the site. Test borings showed there was quicksand under it. Construction was stopped until 1898, when $9,000 was appropriated to fix the problem. The lighthouse was completed in 1899. It was the last original lighthouse established in Rhode Island.
In the early 20th century two lighthouses were built to replace old lights. Hog Island Shoals Lightship LV-12 was in poor condition and needed to be replaced. There were discussions on placing a new lightship on it or replacing it with a lighthouse. It was finally decided to replace it with a lighthouse. Hog Island Lighthouse was built in 1903. The 1826 Warwick Lighthouse was replaced with a new lighthouse in 1932.
As technology advanced and shipping patterns changed in the 20th century, the need for manned lighthouses was reduced. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the government closed Ida Lewis Lighthouse, Bristol Ferry Lighthouse, Conanicut Lighthouse and Wickford Harbor Lighthouse and replaced them with skeleton towers.
The 1938 Hurricane damaged a number of lighthouses. Bullock Point Lighthouse and Musselbeds Shoals Lighthouse were severely damaged. They were torn down the next year and replaced with skeleton towers.
Prudence island Lighthouse was badly damaged and its keeper's house was destroyed during the hurricane. The keeper's family and friends were killed when the house was destroyed by a storm surge. The lighthouse was electrified and automated after the hurricane. Whale Rock Lighthouse was destroyed during the hurricane and its keeper was killed when a rogue wave tore the lighthouse off its base. A skeleton tower replaced the light.
In 1941 the first Jamestown Bridge was completed next to Plum Beach Lighthouse. The light was no longer needed and was deactivated.
During the 1940s and 1950s Rhode Island Lighthouses started to switch from gas and kerosene to electricity. This meant a keeper wasn't needed to fuel the light during the night and the lights could be automated. Four lighthouses, Castle Hill Light, Dutch Island Light, Point Judith Light and Sabin Point Light, were automated during this period. Gould Island Lighthouse was closed and was replaced with a skeleton tower. Sakonnet Point Lighthouse was closed due to storm damage.
Lighthouse automation and closure accelerated during the 1960s and 1970s. Radar and other technology had made many of them less important as aids to navigation. Most of the remaining lighthouses were automated. There were a few exceptions. Sabin Point Light and Gull Rocks Light, two unique lighthouses were closed and burned down. Pomham Rocks Lighthouse was closed in 1974 and replaced with a skeleton tower. Rose Island Lighthouse was closed in 1971. It was left to rot for 20 years until Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation was organized to save it. It was restored and opened in 1993. To raise money to maintain the lighthouse, the foundation lets visitors become guest keepers. They paid to stay at the lighthouse overnight or spend a week.
In 1980s and early 1990s the last three Rhode Island Lighthouses with keepers, Block Island Light, Watch Hill Light and Warwick Light, were automated. The value of lighthouses changed during this period. Lighthouses went from buildings to be abandoned or burned down to valuable historical structures. Block Island Southeast Lighthouse was in danger of falling into the ocean because of erosion. In earlier years it would have been abandoned and crashed into the ocean. Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation was formed to save the lighthouse. They raised $2,000,000 to move the lighthouse. In August 1993 the lighthouse was moved 300 feet back and was relighted in 1994.
Block Island Lighthouse's move was a renaissance for Rhode Island Lighthouses. People realized how close they were to losing these treasures. Several Preservation groups, including, The Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse, Inc. and Dutch Island Lighthouse Society were formed to restore Rhode Island's abandoned and deactivated lighthouses. Because of their efforts Sakonnet Points Lighthouse was relighted in 1997, Plum Beach Lighthouse was relighted in 2003, Pomham Rocks Lighthouse was relighted in 2006 and Dutch Island Lighthouse was relighthed in 2007.
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