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New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Block Island North Light
Block Island, Rhode Island
Block Island North Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards

History
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

Block Island, a popular vacation spot sometimes called the "Bermuda of the North," has been known by mariners for its dangerous shoals and frequent fog. Between 1819 and 1838, 59 vessels were wrecked on or near the island.

Block Island North Light was established to mark the entrances to Block Island Sound and Long Island Sound, as well as to warn mariners away from dangerous Sandy Point, extending a mile or so from the island. The first lighthouse built here in 1829 consisted of two lights on opposite ends of a building. Two years later, the schooner Warrior was wrecked at Sandy Point in a storm. Twenty-one people died and seven of them were buried on Block Island.

The first building was soon threatened by the ocean, and in 1837 a new lighthouse was built farther inland. Again, two lights were erected at either end of a dwelling. The lights were considered too dim, and mariners complained that they looked like a single light from more than three miles. Another structure was built in 1857, but this one was soon overcome by the shifting sands.

The fourth lighthouse at Sandy Point was built by a Fall River contractor at a cost of $15,000, 700 yards from the end of the point. It went into service on September 14, 1868.

Hiram Ball had been the keeper of the previous light for six years; he remained at the station for another 30 years.

old engraving of lighthouse
old photo of lighthouse

The lighthouse is a handsome granite dwelling with an iron tower. The building is very similar to several other lighthouses built about the same time, including Connecticut's Great Captain Island Light, Sheffield Island Light and Morgan Point Light, and New York's Field Point Light.

The new lighthouse received a fourth-order Fresnel lens, exhibiting a fixed white light visible for 13 1/2 miles. The light was later changed to an occulting light, and still later to a flashing light.

In August 1946, Frank Perry, an architect and photographer from Providence, Rhode Island, visited Block Island to take some photographs for a book. After walking along the sandy beach to the North Light, he returned to his taxi and saw a man and a woman on bicycles fitted with carriers loaded with groceries. 


Perry talked to the couple and found out the man was the Coast Guard keeper at the North Light. They were about to leave the bicycles at a friend's house and walk a mile on the beach to the lighthouse, carrying their heavy groceries.

Perry felt that this situation was so deplorable that he described it in a letter to President Harry S. Truman. "These people are in the employ of the U.S. Government," he wrote, "rendering a faithful service in caring for an important light and it seems to me that they are deserving of consideration. In other words they should be furnished means of transportation, a jeep, for example..." Perry didn't receive an answer from the President, but the matter was referred to the Coast Guard and the Block Island North Light Station soon had a jeep.

aerial photo of lighthouse
U.S. Coast Guard photo

Block Island North Light was automated in 1956. Donald Lawson of Boston was the last Coast Guard keeper at the station, where he lived with his wife Margaret, a registered nurse, and their one-year-old son, Ricky. In their last winter at the station, heavy snow left the Lawsons stranded and supplies had to be delivered by boat. Donald Lawson enjoyed the fishing and swimming at the station, but wasn't too fond of having to crank the clockwork mechanism that turned the lens, a ritual that had to be repeated every four hours each night.

The lighthouse was deactivated in 1973. A skeleton tower a short distance away replaced "Old Granitesides."

In 1973 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service acquired Block Island North Light and 28 surrounding acres. It became a wildlife refuge, home to many species of birds. Little attention was paid to the lighthouse, which was the scene of much vandalism. In 1984 the Fish and Wildlife Service sold the lighthouse and two acres of land to the Town of New Shoreham for $1.

Much renovation was completed in the next few years, and the North Light Commission convinced the Coast Guard to move the optic from the skeleton tower back into the lighthouse.

On August 5, 1989, the lighthouse was relighted, and in 1993 the restored first floor was opened as a museum.

The lighthouse has undergone extensive renovation during the last few years under the tireless stewardship of North Light Commission Chair Rob Gilpin. “It started as a way to give back to the community,” he told the Block Island Times. “I enjoy it or obviously I wouldn’t do it. It just gets frustrating sometimes.” North Light Commission co-Chairman Gilbert Plumb, who is in his 80s, has also done a great deal of work to gain support for the lighthouse. 

lens in museum

An inspection in 2001 showed that the lighthouse needed major work. The iron tower had badly deteriorated, especially where it met the rest of the building. The cost of the restoration of the tower and roof is about $700,000.

The town was awarded $400,000 in June 2002 from the federal Transportation Enhancement Program, and a $100,000 State Preservation Grant was announced on December 6, 2006. Another $100,000 was awarded by the town, and $95,000 in donations to the North Light Association were applied to the project.

The navigational light in October 2005
In anticipation of restoration, the navigational light was relocated from the lighthouse to a small tower to the north in 2003.

In June 2008, the lantern was removed from the building and transported to Georgetown Ironworks in Massachusetts for a complete overhaul. After the work on the building and the lantern was completed, the lantern was returned to its home in the summer of 2009.

The fourth-order Fresnel lens, on display for years in the interpretive center, has been returned to the lighthouse's lantern room. A ceremony to relight the North Light as a private aid to navigation took place on Saturday, October 23, 2010. 

Below is a video showing some of the restoration work carried out by Georgetown Ironworks.

In December 2010, the American Institute of Architects, Rhode Island Chapter, conferred an Honor Award for Restoration to the town, the North Light Commission, and Walter Sedovic Architects.  The jury stated that “the restoration required tireless effort from the entire community.”

North Light Commission

PO Box 220

Block Island, RI 02807

(401) 466-3213


Keepers: William A. Weeden (sometimes identified as Edward Weeden) (1829-1839); Simeon Babcock (1839-1841 and 1845-1849); Edward Mott II (1841-1845 and 1849-1853); Enoch Rose, Jr. (1853-1858); Nicholas Littlefield (1858-1861); Hiram D. Ball (1861-1891); Elam Littlefield (1891-1923); John F. Anderson (1923-1926); Ezra B. Dunn (1926-1938); Howard B. Beebe (1938-1945); John Lee, Jr. (1945-1952); William H. McAffee (1952-1955); Donald M. Lawson (Coast Guard, 1955-1956).
Last updated 12/16/11
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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