Point Judith, part of the
town of Narragansett, extends more than a mile from the Rhode Island
coast and markes the entrance to Narragansett Bay to the north and
Block Island Sound to the south. Several Indian tribes -- predominately
the Narragansetts -- were living in the area when English settlers
The passage past Point Judith was a dangerous one, with
a treacherous ledge to the west and frequent fog in the area. A day
beacon at Point Judith dated back to before the American Revolution.
The origin of Point Judith's name is disputed. Some say it was
after the wife or mother-in-law of merchant John Hull, others say it
was named for the Tribe of Judah in the Bible. The most colorful
explanation concerns a Nantucket sea captain, lost in the fog off the
point. The captain's daughter shouted that she spotted land. The
captain, unable to discern anything in the fog, exhorted his daughter
to "P'int, Judy, p'int!"
The first lighthouse was built at Point Judith in 1810 for
$5,000. This octagonal wooden tower, the third lighthouse in Rhode
Island, was destroyed in a severe hurricane in September 1815. A
35-foot stone lighthouse was erected the following year.
The new tower had a revolving light. In 1838, it was reported
that the mechanism, powered by a weight of more than 200 pounds, took
144 seconds to complete a revolution. This was six seconds slower than
intended. The revolving light was necessary to differentiate Point
Judith from Beavertail Light.
the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
The station was cold and damp, and the bedroom was
located in the attic of the keeper's house. The keeper and his family
are said to have slept in the kitchen to keep warm in the winter. In
1838 an inspector reported that the ten lamps and reflectors were in
poor condition and that ice on the lantern glass was a common problem.
Despite the lighthouse, frequent wrecks continued in the
vicinity. In 1855 alone, 16 vessels were wrecked or stranded near Point
Ravenswood Eaton was keeper from 1849 to 1853. The site was inspected
in the summer of 1850, and it was reported that the tower needed
repointing and whitewashing, and the lantern was in need of repainting.
The dwelling was “somewhat decayed in or about the sills,” and the
windows were leaky. The lighting apparatus was clean and in good order,
but it was reported that Keeper Eaton, “without doubt, burns oil to a
In the files of the Newport Historical Society is a
stern letter to Eaton dated November 18, 1850, from Edward Lawton, the
local lighthouse superintendent. Lawton wrote:
has been made at this office that your Light was out from two to half
past 4 o’clock this morning; how much longer the complainant could not
tell. I presume it is not necessary for me to say that such an
occurrence is altogether inadmissible; your light is an important one
& the consequences from missing it are serious indeed—if your oil
is not good or the revolving apparatus is out of order let me know
immediately, and I beg of you let no more complaints be made that the
lights are out.
Eaton offered a poignant defense, illustrating an essential dilemma of
lighthouse keepers at times of family illnesses:
I was up all night tending to a sick child and was at the Light house
after 1 oclock at night it was then a bright light . . . . I was out
doors about four o’clock in the morning and the light was bright then I
am serting. [sic]
In 1857, a new 51-foot brownstone tower and brick dwelling, connected
to the tower by an enclosed walkway, were built. The lighthouse, which
still stands, is an octagonal structure. It was fitted with a
fourth-order Fresnel lens from Paris; this lens remains in place today.
The upper half of the tower was later painted brown and the lower half
Late 1800s photo of the 1857
lighthouse and keeper's house. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Keeper Joseph Whaley. Courtesy
of Marise Whaley Sykes.
A family dynasty of keepers that would span nearly a
half-century began in 1862 when Joseph Whaley oldest of 11 children
and a native of Narragansett arrived as keeper at a yearly salary of
$350. "Captain Joe" and his wife raised three daughters and a son in
their 27 years at the lighthouse. Their son, Henry, would become the
next keeper in 1889 (at $650 per year), staying until 1910.
The Narragansett Times
reported on the astounding number of vessels seen passing Point Judith
from June 1, 1871, to June 1, 1872. Keeper Whaley counted 4,444
steamers, 2,183 sloops, 29,757 schooners, 728 brigs, 122 barks, and 23
other ships—numbers that attest to the continued value of the light and
An 1889 article in the Providence Journal at
the time of Joe Whaley's retirement at age 70 described his typical
duties. The oil lamp needed to be filled after "lighting up" at sunset,
then again at 10 p.m. and at 2 a.m. The clockwork mechanism that
rotated the lens needed to be rewound during the predawn hours.
During the day, the weather had to be monitored for the
first sign of fog or storm, because the steam boiler for the siren had
to be ready for business when visibility was low. Of course, the
buildings and grounds had to be kept in top condition, and the
brasswork and Fresnel lens had to be immaculate.
|The keepers also had to cordially
show around any visitors to the lighthouse. It was not unusual for 200
or more visitors to arrive on a summer afternoon. All in all, the
keeper and his assistant had plenty to do "besides basking on the
little stretch of green smoking their pipes," as Joe Whaley put it.
Sometimes tricks of the weather meant that the powerful signal couldn't
be heard even a short distance from the point. One ship captain
complained to the authorities that the siren wasn't sounding properly,
but Joe Whaley pointed out that the district lighthouse superintendent
was with him in the signal house at the hour in question, along with a
half dozen other people. The vagaries of nature were to blame, not the
of Joe Whaley’s daughters married Henry W. Clark, keeper at Block
Island Southeast Light, and another married Herbert Knowles, the
longtime keeper of the nearby Point Judith Life Saving Station that had
been established a short distance to the east of the lighthouse in
The Whaleys around the
dinner table. Joseph Whaley is second from right, and Henry Whaley is
in the center. Courtesy
of Marise Whaley Sykes.
At his retirement, Whaley expressed some resentment about
You see it is a good deal of responsibility between the
light and the fog signal. And I'm getting pretty old to shoulder it
all, although my son Henry has relieved me of a good deal of it for
years past. Why, every sailor man in the world has his eyes open to
catch the lighthouse keepers and complain of them, and they do it every
time they get a chance. That is all right, of course, for no one can
watch the lighthouses and fog signals in times when they need watching
except the sailor who happens to be going by and needs to have
everything running all right. They make lots of funny complaints,
though. Of course that about the fog signal not running is the most
frequent, and I don't blame them either. But they watch to see whether
your light is lit sharp at sunset, and if it goes out sharp at sunrise,
and Block Island has been complained of several times for having the
light burning after sunrise when it was the sun reflecting from the
With heavy maritime traffic, wrecks continued to occur with regularity
in the vicinity of Point Judith. On September 9, 1896, while Henry
Whaley was keeper, a storm with winds of 80 miles per hour ran into the
coast. At least five vessels were wrecked near Point Judith in the
storm, and passengers on board the steamer Rhode Island
reported that they received "a terrible shaking" while passing the
||The old lifesaving station was destroyed in a 1933
fire, and the existing Coast Guard
station building was constructed in 1937.
Today, Coast Guard Station
Point Judith handles about 170 search- and- rescue cases each year. The
station’s boats are kept three miles away in Galilee.
In 1931, a radio beacon was established at Point Judith,
the first at a Rhode Island lighthouse. The radio beacon towers were
removed in 1974.
Shipping traffic past Point Judith remained heavy in the
20th century. In 1907, 22,860 vessels were counted passing the
lighthouse in daylight hours. The traffic was four times greater than
the traffic entering New York Harbor.
Left: U.S. Coast
Guard photo showing the 1937 Coast Guard building.
The Coast Guard built larger quarters and support
buildings in 1937. Point Judith Light escaped the great hurricane of
September 1938 relatively unscathed, although 250 feet of the seawall
The 1857 brick keeper's house was torn down in 1954, the
same year the light was automated. An 1874 assistant keeper's house has
also been destroyed.
The 1917 oil house and a 1923 fog signal building still
U.S. Coast Guard photo
In the summer of 2000, Point Judith Light underwent a major
restoration. Coast Guard architect Marsha Levy did the design work and
oversaw the restoration by Campbell Construction of Beverly,
Massachusetts. The lens was removed to the Coast Guard Aids to
Navigation Team in Bristol, Rhode Island, and the lantern went to
Campbell Construction for refurbishing. Some of the lantern's panels
were replaced, and a repainting left it in pristine condition.
lantern was returned to Point Judith Light on July 13, 2000.
New galvanized steel windows with six panes of safety
glass were installed, similar to the tower's original wrought iron
Some of the original brownstone, which "weathers
horribly" according to Levy, had to be replaced. Brownstone is hard to
come by these days, but a quarry was found in Cheshire, Connecticut.
The new stones were dyed to match the old ones. The project also
utilized special mortar from Holland, which is custom formulated to
match any stone. Cracks were patched on the interior and exterior of
the tower. Rather than paint the upper half of the tower brown, Levy
decided to leave it the natural brownstone color, with a dye making it
According to Marsha Levy, the restoration should leave
the tower in excellent condition for at least 100 years.
Coast Guard architect Marsha
Levy and Dave Campbell, owner of Campbell Construction
U.S. Coast Guard Station Point
Point Judith remains an active Coast Guard station. The
grounds are easily accessible and are open to the public during the day.
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book
Lighthouses of Rhode Island by Jeremy D'Entremont.
Point Judith Light has finials
shaped like miniature lighthouses on its lantern gallery
- Looking up at the cast iron spiral stairs in the tower
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
John P. Whitford (1809-1835), Benjamin Hadwens (1841-1845),
William A. Weeden (1845-1849), Edgar Ravenswood Eaton (1849-1853), G.
H. Clark (1853-1856), Samuel Tucker (1856-1861), Daniel E. Tefft
(1861-1862), Joseph Whaley (1862-1889), Edwin B. Tucker (1st asst.,
1867), Henry W. Clark (1st asst., 1867-1873), Isaac Negas (1st asst.,
1873), Benjamin A. King (1st asst., 1873-1874), Samuel Beaumont (1st
asst., 1874), C. C. Clark (1st asst., 1874-1875), J. Sennett (1st
asst., 1875-1876), Henry A. Whaley (1st asst., 1876-1889, keeper
1889-1910), William Nelson (1st asst., 1889), John Stedman (1st asst.,
1889-1898), Harry Collins (1st asst., 1898-1901), Julius Gregove (1st
asst., 1901-1904), Arthur E. Godfrey (1st asst., 1904-1906), Willis A.
Green (1st asst., 1906-1910, keeper 1910-1911), J. N. (Julius ?)
Gregove (1st asst., 1910-1911), Elmer J. Rathbun (1911-1929), A. D.
Gilmore (1st asst., 1911-1918), Jeremiah J. Allen (1st asst.,
1918-1929), Rudolph Iten (1929-1941), Carl S. Chellis (1st asst.,
1929-1939), Octavius E. Davis (1st asst., 1939-1941)