New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Poplar Point Light
Wickford, Rhode Island
Poplar Point Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards

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

Wickford's cozy, protected harbor, off the west side of Narragansett Bay, developed as a shipping point for goods from the area's large plantations. Foreign trade from Wickford also blossomed, before the Revolution and again in the early 1800s. The harbor's wharves were thick with sloops and schooners, many of them built at local shipyards.

old photo of lighthouse

Congress appropriated $3,000 on March 3, 1831, for a light at the entrance to Wickford Harbor. A site on the south side of the harbor entrance was selected, and the land was purchased from Thomas Albro for $300.

The specifications called for a one-story stone dwelling, 40 feet by 20 feet, with a cellar. The house was to be divided into two rooms, with a chimney in the middle and a fireplace in each room. A porch or kitchen was to be attached to the house. 

An octagonal wooden lighthouse tower, 10 feet in diameter and rising 8 feet above the ridge of the house, was to be erected at one end of the building. It was to be topped by a wooden deck, covered with copper, and an octagonal iron lantern.

Contractor Charles Allen was hired to build the lighthouse at a cost of $1,889, and it was completed before the end of the year. Winslow Lewis furnished the original lighting apparatus, consisting of eight lamps and eight 14-inch reflectors, for $375. A local man named John Stevens supervised the construction of the lighthouse, and he reported on Lewis’s visit in a letter dated October 13, 1831. Stevens complained that the apparatus installed by Lewis was incomplete. Lewis told the workers that the missing parts were “not in his contract.” 

The light went into service on November 1, 1831, with the focal plane of the fixed white light 48 feet above the water. Samuel Thomas, Jr. was appointed as first keeper at a yearly salary of $350. He had been recommended for the position by a Judge Sanford, who described him as “an honest and capable man” who had always been “a firm Republican of the Jefferson school.” Thomas remained until 1849, when James Reynolds succeeded him.

Lt. George M. Bache examined the lighthouse for his important survey of 1838. Bache pointed out that the light wasn't needed for navigation in Narragansett Bay. "Its utility, therefore," he wrote, "may be very nearly measured by the service it renders the trade of North Kingstown or Wickford." Bache reported that in 1838 there were 15 vessels engaged in trade belonging to the port of North Kingstown, and five vessels engaged in the cod fishery. Bache stopped just short of recommending that the light be discontinued:

I have no means of determining the average number of nightly arrivals at and departures from this port, throughout the year; but . . . their number would not be great. None but those very well acquainted with the navigation would venture into Wickford at night, in preference to remaining at the excellent anchorage in its neighborhood, between Conanicut and Dutch Islands.

Bache reported the lamps in good order and the dwelling in good repair. An 1850 inspection praised Keeper James Reynolds (“Keeper is a new one, and I think a pretty good one”), who had arrived a year earlier, but found that the house needed whitewashing. In 1855, a sixth-order steamer lens and Argand oil lamp replaced the earlier multiple lamps and reflectors. 

The 1868 annual report of the Lighthouse Board recommended the installation of a new lantern, the lining of the lighthouse tower, and several other improvements. Entrance to the tower was through a bedroom that had no window; it was recommended that a dormer window be added. On July 15, 1870, Congress appropriated $12,300 for repairs at four lighthouses, including Poplar Point. The improvements were implemented by the time the annual report of 1871 was released.

For many years, ferry sloops provided the only public water transportation from Wickford to Newport, and the service was irregular at best. But in 1870, the Wickford Railroad and Steamboat Company began regular passenger ferry service to Newport, connecting with a railroad line from New York City to Wickford. 

The foot of Steamboat Avenue, a short distance from the lighthouse, was the terminus for the trains and the ferry.

old photo of lighthouse

By 1880, the Lighthouse Board decided that a light located 200 yards offshore from Poplar Point, at Old Gay Rock, would better serve the ferries and other traffic. With the establishment of the new Wickford Harbor Lighthouse on November 1, 1882, the old light at Poplar Point was permanently darkened as an aid to navigation. On October 15, 1894, the government sold Poplar Point Lighthouse at public auction. The buyer was Albert Sherman at a high bid of $3,944.67. 

old photo of lighthouse

The owner of the lighthouse in 1932 was Edith M. Grant. According to an article by John W. Hawkins in the Providence Journal, Grant was the “first to realize the possibilities of the 100-year-old landmark and develop them to the full.” A large addition had been built onto the building a few years earlier under Ms. Grant’s direction, designed by Franklin Eddy of Providence. The entire building took the form of a “Y,” with the lighthouse tower at the end of the right wing. The left wing contained the main kitchen and a summer kitchen, and terminated at a garage.

Elmer and Virginia Shippee bought the property in 1966. The Shippees' son, Russell, and his wife, Cathy, have lived in the lighthouse since 1987. The Shippees have extensively renovated the building since 1987, and it's a process that never truly ends.

The property is exposed to extremely harsh conditions, especially in winter. One storm took the paint right off the garage, as if it had been sandblasted.

But the rewards have been many. "Look at it here," says Cathy Shippee. "It's absolutely beautiful. It's a view that constantly changes, month to month, day to day, hour to hour. The activity in the summer is ongoing-it's like a picture show. It's not boring, let me tell you!" The Shippees' three children, now grown, love returning to their lighthouse home. "It's a great place to bring up children," Cathy says.

Cathy and Russell Shippee
This is Rhode Island's oldest unrebuilt lighthouse in its original location. The lighthouse tower itself is also the oldest wooden lighthouse in the nation. (Plymouth Light in Massachusetts is the oldest free-standing wooden tower.) A good view of the lighthouse is available from a breakwater across Wickford Harbor at Sauga Point.

THIS PROPERTY IS FOR SALE (as of January 24, 2010). See these sites for information:

You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Rhode Island by Jeremy D'Entremont

The view from the lantern room

Keepers: (This 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 Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)

Samuel Thomas, Jr. (1831-1849), James Reynolds (1849-1854), Abram B. Green (1854-1859), Samuel A. Spinks (1859-1861), John Hull (1861-1874), Henry F. Sherman (1874-1882)
Last revised 12/22/11
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

Poplar Point Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards
Rhode Island Menu / New England Menu / Back to Contents
Vote for this site on Top 25 Lighthouse Web Sites List!
lighthouse banner