When Rhode Island's founding
father Roger Williams acquired the island and its smaller neighbors,
he named them Prudence, Patience, and Hope. A tiny outcropping
of rock between Hope and Patience received a more ominous name
-- Despair Island.
A catchy rhyme helped Rhode Island schoolchildren remember
their local geography: "Prudence, Patience, Hope, and Despair.
And little Hog Island right over there."
Prudence is roughly seven miles long and one and one-half
miles across at its widest point. Given its prominence in the
bay, it's surprising it took so long to establish a light station
on the island. Nineteenth century ship traffic was heavy between
Sandy Point, at the island's easternmost extremity, and Aquidneck
Island, about a mile to the east. The May 18, 1850, edition of
the Bristol Phoenix reported:
The honorable Orin Fowler, of Massachusetts, presented
in the House of Representatives, the petitions of citizens of
Bristol, Warren, Newport, and Providence, Rhode Island; and of
Fall River, Massachusetts; and of New York, praying that a beacon
light-house be erected on Sandy Point, on Prudence Island, in
Narragansett Bay. We trust that the prayer of these petitions
will be granted, as the urgent necessity of a light-house at
Sandy Point has long been seriously felt. It is required for
all vessels navigating Narragansett and Mount Hope Bays. The
New York bound steamers, which invariably pass the point, late
in the evening or very early in the morning, require a light
on this Point in order to enable them to pass on without detention,
particularly, in thick weather.
Local lighthouse superintendent Edward W. Lawton recommended
to Stephen Pleasanton, the fifth auditor of the Treasury who
was in charge of the nation's lighthouses, that the old lighthouse
on Goat Island in Newport Harbor -- unused since 1842 -- be moved
to Prudence Island and put in service there. Pleasanton concurred
with this cost-saving suggestion.
In October 1851, the specifications were prepared for the
new light station. By the end of October, contractor Horace Vaughn
had moved the pieces of the tower to Prudence Island. Vaughn
completed the reassembly of the tower in its new location by
the end of November.
A new cast-iron deck and cast-iron "birdcage-style"
lantern were installed atop the tower, along with lighting apparatus
consisting of multiple oil lamps and parabolic reflectors. In
1856, a fifth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light
would replace the antiquated equipment.
A six-room keeper's dwelling was constructed about 200 feet
west of the lighthouse, with an elevated walkway leading from
the house to the tower. The new light went into service for the
first time on January 17, 1852, with Peleg Sherman its first
keeper. In June 1853, Bristol native Henry Dimond replaced Sherman.
Isaac Aldrich was the keeper when a fog bell and striking machinery
were installed in a wooden tower in 1885. A boathouse was added
in 1895, when Thomas Burke was in charge.
Martin Thompson, originally from Norway, became keeper in
1905 after stints as an assistant at Sakonnet Light, Rhode Island,
and Borden Flats Light at Fall River, Massachusetts. Thompson
would stay at the lighthouse until 1933 -- longer than anyone
in the station's history.
In February 1913, a newspaper article described a thrilling
adventure experienced by Keeper Thompson's two young daughters.
According to the story, Thompson sighted what he believed to
be a seal several hundred yards offshore, and his daughters,
Nellie and Bessie, rowed out to investigate. The girls soon became
frightened when they realized the animal was much larger than
the harbor seals usually seen in the vicinity. It also had tusks
two feet long.
As the formidable creature started toward them, the girls
rowed for all they were worth back to the island. They made it
back safely, and the animal -- a walrus, according to the newspaper
account -- swam back into open water. Atlantic walruses were
once plentiful as far south as Cape Cod, but hunting had mostly
wiped them out of New England by the early 1800s. This particular
specimen had apparently strayed far from its herd.
- Keeper Martin Thompson
- Courtesy of the Beavertail Lighthouse
The worst hurricane in the recorded history of New England
hit the coast on September 21, 1938. Here a description of what
took place in Keeper George T. Gustavus' own words, as told to
historian Edward Rowe Snow for his book A Pilgrim Returns
to Cape Cod:
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The station dwelling was on the low level at the Sandy
Point. Many summer folk had cottages near and around the Light
dwelling; our nearest neighbor, retired Keeper Thompson, who
had been stationed at this light for 25 years, had a nice little
cottage next to the Station dwelling called the "Snug-Harbor."
On the day of the storm, he and Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, summer
folk, came rushing into the Station dwelling. Mr. Thompson [former
keeper Martin Thompson] said that he had lived there for 25 years
and that the house would stand any blow that would strike. Those
folks, my wife and son and I were caught inside by the tidal
wave and after two 17-foot seas of water along with plenty of
wind hit, we were caught like rats in a trap.
We all rushed upstairs, when the house broke up we were
all thrown into the rushing waters - I found myself inside a
cottage on the Island about 1/2 mile from where the station dwelling
had been. A lad living on the Island followed me down the shore.
When he saw me near the cliffs, he stuck a timber down into the
water and I clamped the death grip on it. Then he and others
hauled me out.
I was the only member that got out of that dwelling alive
- my wife was found a few days later on the beach near Newport.
I never found the boy. Keeper Thompson, Mr. and Mrs. Lynch were
found on the Island shores about a week later. The first thing
we done after getting out, was to see that the light was attended.
We strung a wire from the Electric Light building that was near
the light station and got a light going; then I began looking
for the wife and son, whom the neighbors informed were safe and
taken care of. I knew better. They told me the next day how things
When the Coast Guard cutter Tahoe arrived at Prudence
Island after the storm, an officer called to someone on shore,
"Where are the dead?" The person replied, "All
washed to sea." Five people died at Prudence Island in the
disaster that killed over 700 across New England.
- Keeper George T. Gustavus, courtesy
of Joan Kenworthy
- Keeper George T. Gustavus and his
family, courtesy of Joan Kenworthy.
- The keeper's wife, Mabel, is next
to him in the front row; their youngest son, Edward, is at the
Wreckage near the lighthouse after the hurricane of 1938
Milton Chase lived in a large house just north of the lighthouse,
and he operated the island's electric plant. On the night of
the hurricane, Chase ran a cable from the power station to the
lighthouse. He got a light bulb operating in the lantern that
night-the first time the lighthouse operated on electric power.
The light remained active after the hurricane, with Milton
Chase briefly serving as acting keeper. In 1939, a fourth-order
lens was installed and the light was electrified, and Chase's
job title was changed to "lamplighter." During World
War II, Sarah Chase, Milton's wife, served as lamplighter. When
Milton Chase died in 1958, Rodger C. Grant took over as lamplighter.
Michael Bachini got the job in 1961.
The last lamplighter was
Marcy (Taber) Bachini Dunbar, whose brother, George Taber, had
rescued Keeper Gustavus in the hurricane. Marcy replaced her
husband, Michael Bachini, following his death in 1969.
After the automation of the light in 1972, members of the
Coast Guard's aids to navigation team in Bristol visited
Island residents often performed basic maintenance, cleaning
up the grounds around the lighthouse and occasionally replacing
a broken windowpane. From the time of its founding in 1987, members
of a group called the Prudence
Conservancy did much of this work.
Conservancy's involvement led to the granting of a license
by the Coast Guard for the group to officially take over the
care of the tower, largely due to the work of Marge Del Papa,
a board member of the organization. A ceremony was held to celebrate
the license agreement on August 11, 2001.
More recently volunteers have shored up the foundation and
repainted the tower. One of those who has helped is Prudence
Island resident Kevin Blount, formerly the officer in charge
of the Coast Guard's Aids to Navigation team that worked on the
Right: Undated U.S. Coast Guard photo, circa 1950s.
Prudence Island Light remains an active aid to navigation,
now fitted with a 250-millimeter modern lens showing a green
flash every six seconds. The old-style "birdcage" style
lantern is the one of very few still in use in the U.S., and
the lighthouse tower is the oldest in the state.
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses
of Rhode Island by Jeremy D'Entremont.
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 email@example.com.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Peleg Sherman (1852-1853),
Henry Dimond (1853-1855), Edward W. Spooner (1855-1859), William
S. W. Yewel (1859-1862), Thomas J. Corey (1862-1875), Isaac Aldrich
(1875-1886), John T. Clarke (1886-1887), Onley Coyle (1887-1888),
John F. Follett (1888-1889), Thomas Burke (1894-1898), Nathaniel
Dodge (1898-1905), Martin Thompson (1905-1933), Elmer V. Newton
(1933-1937), George T. Gustavis (1937-1938), Milton H. Chase
(lamplighter, 1939-1943), Sarah A. Chase (lamplighter, 1943-1951),
Milton H. Chase (lamplighter, 1951-1958), Roger C. Grant (lamplighter,
1958-1961), Michael J. Bachini (lamplighter, 1961-1969), Marcy
(Taber) Bachini Dunbar (lamplighter, 1969-1972)