New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Warwick Light
Warwick, Rhode Island
Warwick 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.

Warwick Neck, a peninsula between Narragansett Bay and Greenwich Bay, is one of the most picturesque corners of the Ocean State. Panoramic vistas and salty sea breezes attracted scores of wealthy families to these shores. In fact, it's said that before the Great Depression and the hurricane of 1938 changed the local landscape-literally and figuratively-Warwick had more resident millionaires than any other community in the nation.

Vessels passing through the West Passage of Narragansett Bay, an increasingly busy waterway in the early 1800s, had to contend with a narrow channel between Warwick Neck and the northern extremity of Patience Island, less than a mile to the southeast. It's believed that a privately operated beacon was in use at the end of Warwick Neck in Colonial times.

old photo of lighthouse
The first Warwick Lighthouse
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

Congress appropriated $3,000 in 1825 and 1826 for a proper lighthouse at the point. Three acres of land were bought from the Green family for $750, and construction began. The first lighthouse on Warwick Neck was small and unusual, consisting of a 30-foot tower atop a tiny stone dwelling with only two rooms, each about 11 feet square.

The tower was square at its base, but the corners toward the top were cut back to form an octagonal shape. The lighting apparatus consisted of eight lamps, each with a 9-inch reflector. The light was established in early 1827. The lighting was delayed a bit because the first keeper appointed, a man named Burke, turned down the position.

The first keeper to live at the station, Elisha Case, was provided insufficient living space for himself and his family, and the house was exceedingly damp. Case was replaced by Daniel Waite in 1831, but only after Case was granted the right to harvest crops he had planted at the lighthouse. After Waite's death late in 1832, his widow, Abby Waite, became the next keeper. A wood-frame extension with three rooms added in 1833 improved the living conditions, but there were still bothersome leaks at the junction between the addition and the original structure.

Alfred Fish was the keeper when a hurricane swept the coast on September 8, 1869, passing just to the west of the area. Luckily, the storm's worst effects were felt at the time of low tide. Still, the light station's outhouses were demolished, and the roof of the keeper's house was badly damaged. Fences were also blown down, and much of the bluff near the lighthouse was eaten away. Needed repairs were quickly completed.

old photo of lighthouse
U.S. Coast Guard photo

The original lamps and reflectors were replaced by a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1856.

A fog bell and striking machinery were added to the station in 1882. Five years later, the keeper's dwelling was described as "very old and dilapidated." Funds were appropriated and a new house, further back from the edge of the bluff, was constructed in 1889. The 1833 addition to the original dwelling was moved onto a new foundation in 1892 and remodeled into a barn.

A powerful new siren succeeded the station's fog bell in 1900, sounding a continuous blast during times of low visibility.

A long battle against erosion has been waged to the south of the lighthouse. A concrete retaining wall was added in 1924, but the 1826 lighthouse was getting precariously close to the edge. Finally, the Bureau of Lighthouses determined a new lighthouse tower was called for.

In many locations by this time, lights on utilitarian steel skeletal towers were replacing lighthouses. Thankfully, at Warwick, a more traditional-style conical cast-iron tower was erected, the last of its kind to be established in New England. The fourth-order lens was moved into the new lighthouse, but the kerosene-fueled incandescent oil vapor lamp was replaced by a 500-watt electric lamp. A new electrically powered foghorn was also installed.

lighthouse near edge of cliff
Many mourned the original lighthouse. The Providence Evening Bulletin called it “a landmark even in the memory of the oldest salt on the bay.” Jorgen Bakken had been keeper since 1912, and his daughter May was born at the lighthouse in 1913. May Bakken Chrietzberg later recalled the transition to the new lighthouse:

It was heartbreaking to have the old lighthouse go. . . . From its commanding position overlooking the bay it was one of the most familiar landmarks along the shore. Inside and out it was an immaculate white, having been kept that way even up to its last hours. The lens—it was beautiful, like diamonds!—was transferred to the new tower in one day. The light continued its operation that night as it had for 106 years.

The new 43-foot tower was erected close to the 1889 keeper’s house. Unlike many similar lighthouses, this one has no brick lining. Its iron spiral stairway is steeper than most, leading from the base right up to the lantern room. Ten floor lights in the lantern room lend sunlight to the interior below, and there are also five portholes around the upper part of the tower, just below the lantern.

Warwick sustained more property damage than any community in Rhode Island during the epic hurricane of 1938, with 700 permanent homes and hundreds of summer cottages destroyed. Warwick Light Station and its residents fared far better in the storm than some of the offshore lights in the bay. But the great storm ate an enormous amount of earth out of the bluff, undermining the lighthouse’s foundation and leaving it practically teetering on the brink of falling into the bay.

The tower was moved back to safer ground about a year after the hurricane. In September 1939, workers lifted the tower using heavy jacks and logs, and it was rolled along planking to its new home about 50 feet inland. It was placed atop a new 8-foot-high concrete foundation, raising its overall height to 51 feet and the focal plane to a height of 66 feet above the water. Two summers later, a new concrete retaining wall was added to the station along with a new fence and drainage system.   

When the tower was moved, the old door, seen in the photo to the left, was permanently sealed.

Harry A. Wilbur became keeper in 1953. The Coast Guard took over the operation of the nation's lighthouses in 1939, and the civilian Lighthouse Service keepers were given the option of joining the Coast Guard or not. Wilbur, who had been a Lighthouse Service keeper in Massachusetts going back to 1937, chose to remain a civilian. He spent a decade at Warwick Light, retiring in 1963. In 1968, Wilbur was honored at a ceremony at the Coast Guard base at Woods Hole on Cape Cod. With Wilbur's retirement, Warwick Light belatedly became a Coast Guard family station.

Alan Penney was the Coast Guard officer in charge from February 1978 to April 1982. He and his wife had a daughter born at the station in 1981.

William Knight became the officer in charge in 1982 and would be the last person to hold that title. When it grew foggy and Knight lost sight of Hog Island, about five miles away, he'd switch on the foghorn. Knight said he would frequently receive calls from residents to the north who heard the horn and insisted there was no fog. They didn't realize that the fog often hung on more persistently to the south of Warwick Neck.

lighthouse station seen from the water

U.S. Coast Guard photo
Unlike most similar towers, Warwick Light has no brick lining. It also has an unusually-shaped stairway.

Warwick Light was automated in 1985, with a modern optic replacing the old Fresnel lens. It continues to exhibit its flashing green light as an active aid to navigation.

A Coast Guard family lives in the 1889 keeper's house. The lighthouse can be seen at a distance from the locked gate of the station at the end of Warwick Neck Road, but is better viewed from the water.

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



Skylights in the lantern room floor allow sunlight into the tower below.


Webmaster Jeremy D'Entremont, left, with Coast Guard Cmdr. Tom Jones, resident of the light station, in the lantern room in October 2004. Photo by Brian Tague.
A view from the top. The breakwater in the photo is one of the methods implemented to slow the erosion of the land at the end of Warwick Neck.
 

Keepers:

(Thanks to Robert I. Dennis for his help with this list. 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 nelights@gmail.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.)

Elisha Case (1826-1831); Daniel Waite (1831-1841); John Rice (1841-1845); John N. Greene (1845-1849); Franklin McGuire (1849-1853); Stephen W. Arnold (1853-1861); William Tanner (1861-1866); Theodore E. Anthony (1866-1867); Alfred Fish (1867-1870); Clarford L. Woodman (1870-1873); Joseph Smith (1873-1886); George H. Burroughs (1886); Edward F. Hovie (1886-1898); James McCann (1898-1901); Joseph D. Burke (1901-1905); Nathaniel Dodge (1905); Edward Barnes Cole (1905-1906); Charles F. Mulford (1906-1908); William H. N. Lake (1908-1912); Thomas J. Murphy (1st asst., 1909); ? Anderson (1st asst., 1909-1910); J. H. Gregorie (1st asst., 1910); Walter Whitford (1st asst., 1910-1911); Edward M. Grant (1st asst., 1911-1912); Charles L. Fletcher (1st asst., 1912-1915); Jorden Bakken (1912-1932); Willus (Willis?) A. Green (1st asst., 1915-1921); Edward Murphy (1st asst., 1921-1932, head keeper 1932-at least 1946); Harry Wilbur (1953-1963), Luther Jacobsen (Coast Guard, 1975-1977), Alan Penney (Coast Guard, February 1978 - April 1982), William Knight (Coast Guard, 1981-1985)
Last updated 12/22/11
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

Warwick 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