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
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
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
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
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 Museum Association
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
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 really stood.
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 front left.
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
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 it
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 light.
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
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 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.)
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)