Rhode Island Lighthouses

Sakonnet Point Lighthouse

Sakonnet Point Lighthouse
© 2013 R. Holmes

Location: On Little Cormorant Rock at the entrance to the Sakonnet River
Location: 1884 - present lLat 41 27 12 N - Long 71 12 12 W
Established: 1884

Original Lighthouse Constructed: 1884
Deactivated: 1955 - 1997
Reactivated: 1997
Original Illuminating Apparatus: Fourth Order Fresnel Lens
Current Illuminating Apparatus: 300-mm lens
Height: 66 feet
Status: Active aid to Navigation/Owned by Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse
Light Characteristic: Fixed White Alternating Group flashing (3) Red every 60 seconds (1924)
Light Characteristic: Fixed White for 30 seconds, 2.6 seconds eclipse
Light Characteristic: 4.8 seconds Red flash, 5.2 seconds eclipse
Light Characteristic: 4.8 seconds Red flash, 5.2 seconds eclipse
Light Characteristic: 4.8 seconds Red flash, 2.6 seconds eclipse

Light Characteristic: Flashing White every 6 seconds - Red sector from 015° to 170° (2005)

Light Characteristic: Flashing White every 6 seconds - Red sector from 195° to 350° (2006)
Range: White 12 miles - Red 10 miles (1924)
Range: 12 miles (1935)
Range: 14 miles (1952)
Range: White 7 miles - Red 5 miles (2005)
Fog Signal: Air Tyfon (1935)
Fog Signal: Air Diaphragm (1952)
Fog Signal Characteristic: Blast for 3 Seconds (1935)
Fog Signal Characteristic: Silent for 12 Seconds
Location: Established: Lighthouse Constructed: Deactivated: Reactivated: Original Illuminating Apparatus: Current Illuminating Apparatus: Height: Status: Light Characteristic: Range: Fog Signal: Fog Signal Characteristic:

On March 14, 1882 Lieutenant Commander Chadwick visited the Sakonnet River looking for the best place to build Sakonnet Point Lighthouse. He believed the west end of West Island was the best location for the lighthouse, if the land could be obtained.

In the March 16, 1882 edition of the Fall River Daily Evening News Chadwick stated he didn't believed it would be a problem obtaining the land because "the island is private property, and chiefly used by fishing parties, there ought to be very little difficulty in securing the site for the object named."

The fishing parties were the West Island Fishing Club. Its members included wealthy and influential business men from Providence, Boston and New York. One of its members, C. E. Miller invited President Chester Arthur to the island. President Arthur went to the island in September 1882.

In 1883, the Lighthouse Board picked Little Cormorant Rock, 1200 feet northwest of West Island, as the site for the Sakonnet Point Lighthouse and began construction on it. Work continued late into the year, completing the lighthouse's pier, before winter storms forced construction to stop. There were concerns, due to the site's exposed location, that additional funding would be needed to finish the lighthouse. However, these concerns proved to be unfounded.

In 1899 Edith Hill-Booker wrote a letter to the newspaper Our Messenger in Nickerson, Kansas about her visit to her uncle Charles F. Fishburne, Sakonnet Point Lighthouse's keeper. The letter is almost poetic in the description of the lighthouse and her stay there. Below is an excerpt from the letter.

"It is our privilege to live these days in one of Uncle Sam's isolated lighthouses, the guest of my bachelor uncle, Mr. Fishburne. A round tower, built upon a bare rock over which the waves sometimes dash to a height of thirty feet, is an inspiring, if awful place to spend a fortnight of one's life. The chief of all its charms is that one is at least free from the "madding crowd," where a diet of fresh fish and lobsters for the body, cool salt breezes for the lungs, and quiet for the mind, have already attested their invigorating power."

George H. Child, an employee of the West Island Club, went to the Sakonnet Point steamboat landing for the club's mail, on July 24, 1903. He had no problem getting the mail, but on his way back to the club a huge wave swamped the boat and pushed it onto rocks near Sakonnet lighthouse. The whale boat was destroyed. Child swan to a nearby rock and climbed into a crevice on it. He clung tightly to the rock to stop himself from being pushed off by the huge wave. Two boats were sent from the club to rescue but could not get near the rock because of heavy seas. They gave up and returned to the island.

Nils Nelson, Sakonnet Lighthouse assistant keeper, launched the lighthouse supply boat to rescue him. The keeper, Richard Curran, stayed at the lighthouse and directed Nelson by signals to the rock. Nelson made it to the rock. He shouted to Childs to throw himself towards the boat after the next wave passed. Childs jumped towards the boat and was pulled into it by Nelson. Both men made it safely back to the island. On June 23, 1904 Nelson was awarded a gold lifesaving medal by the Secretary of the Treasury for his action.

On January 5, 1911 Walter Smiley, Sakonnet Point Lighthouse's assistant keeper, was going on a short leave to visit his wife in New York. There was high surf around the lighthouse. The keeper, William Manchester, didn't think it was a good idea to leave. Smiley decided to go anyway. He put his suitcase in a sixteen foot dory and pushed off from the lighthouse.

Smiley started to row ashore, two and a half miles way. He rowed 150 yards from the lighthouse, when a huge wave swept the oars from his hands. Manchester had been watching Smiley. He threw another oar into the water. Smiley tried to use his hands to row to the lighthouse. It didn't work. The tide was carrying the oar to him. He took his boots and rain gear off. A huge wave swamped the dory and threw Smiley into the water. He started to swim to West Island.

John Sowie and his wife Mary, West Island' fishing club's caretakers, saw Smiley's plight. John was seventy and had been taking care of the club for forty-five years. Mary called the phone company. All she managed to say, "I must have help right off; there's a man drowning; he's tipped out of his dory." before the phone went off. The phone operator figured out where the call was coming from and sent help to Sakonnet Point.

After swimming over half a mile, Smiley's strength gave out. The tide had taken him near West Island. John and Mary were standing waist deep in the surf hoping to grab him. They threw grappling hooks out to him. They hooked on to him and pulled him to shore. They warmed him up and put him to bed to rest. He was okay the next day and left for New York in borrowed clothes.

An article appeared in the March 6, 1914 edition of the Fall River Evening News describing William Manchester's experience during a recent winter storm. He said it was the first time he felt his life was in danger since arriving at Sakonnet Point Lighthouse. A shutter on one of the upper windows at the lighthouse was partly broken. Manchester went to the watch room to wait out the storm. The lighthouse shook like a cradle during the storm.

William J. Doyle was appointed Sakonnet Point's assistant keeper in 1916. On April 7, 1916 Doyle left the lighthouse at 9 o'clock in the morning to go on shore leave. He was going to spend Easter with his parents in Fall River, Massachusetts. His overturned boat was sighted an hour later. James Lyman and Captain Thomas Morrissey started a search for him. They found his body a short time later.

Story of Sakonnet Point Lighthouse keeper drowning
   From R. Holmes Collection  

William Jeffrys arrived at Sakonnet Point on December 29, 1917 to replace keeper John B. Brown. He was still on shore a week later because the lighthouse was surrounded by ice. He couldn't get to the lighthouse for over a week because it was surrounded by ice. He only stayed at the Sakonnet Point Lighthouse for six months.

In 1938, Rhode Island was ravaged by a hurricane. During it, Sakonnet Point Lighthouse was repeatedly pounded by huge wind driven waves. They hit with such force that they caused the light's base to crack. It was repaired but cracked again during Hurricane Carol, in 1954.

The Coast Guard decided not to repair the lighthouse and planned to blow it up. The people of Little Compton asked the Coast Guard not to destroy it. The Coast Guard offered the light to Little Compton if they agreed to maintain it and leave it permanently unlighted. The town agreed and received ownership of the light.

In 1961, the lighthouse was sold to Carl Haffenreffer for $1,111.11. In 1985, he donated it to the Friends of Sakonnet Point Lighthouse, Inc. The group raised $100,000 to restore the lighthouse.

After years of work, the light was relighted on March 19, 1997. On March 22, hundreds of people gathered at Sakonnet Point to celebrate the relighting.

In 2010 restoration started on the lighthouse. A Rhode Island Department of Transportation grant of $844,323 and $170,000 raised by The Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse will pay for the restoration and upkeep. The restoration work included rebolting the lighthouse's external plates and repainting the interior and exterior of the tower.

In March 2010, the project to restore the lighthouse went out to bid. The contract was awarded to the Joseph Gnazzo Company of Union, Connecticut on March 23. The company specializes in restoration work. They also restored the Avery Point Lighthouse in Groton, Connecticut.

In June 2010 restoration started on the lighthouse. A three level work platform was built next to the lighthouse. It was needed to hold cranes and other equipment. On July 12, 2010 three men working at the lighthouse were thrown into the water when their workboat was swamped by a wave. The men were rescued by kayakers and a nearby boat. The restoration continued during the summer. The lighthouse was secured for the winter.


During the restoration, the interior brick wall was removed and checked for damage. The wall was rebuilt and remortared using 75 percent of the original brick. New windows and portholes were installed at the lighthouse. Most of the work was completed in September 2011. With the restoration done, the three level work platform and equipment had to be removed. On December 11th, the tug Hope towed the barge, the James Wooley, to the lighthouse and removed the work platform and equipment.

On July 7, 2012 the Friends of the Sakonnet Lighthouse celebrated the three-year restoration of the Sakonnet Lighthouse and its 125th anniversary by having a sail-by of the lighthouse. The boats in the sail-by ranged from large sailboats down to kayaks.

Sakonnet Point Lighthouse and West Island Fishing Club in 1900
Sakonnet Point Lighthouse
 Courtesy of N.L. Stebbins

For information on the Sakonnet Point Lighthouse, contact:

Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse
P.O. Box 154
Little Compton, RI 02837

Updated 7/20/2020