Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-12-30.
Block Island sits in the middle of the shipping lanes into Long Island Sound and between New York City and Narragansett Bay. The island is surrounded by numerous shoals and along with frequent fog in the area, many vessels were lost. From 1819 to 1838, nearly sixty vessels were wrecked in the area. The first lighthouse to mark Block Island was built in 1829 at the northern end of the island in an area known as Sandy Point.
By the 1850s, the Block Island North Lighthouse was in danger of being lost due to erosion. Congress had appropriated $9,000 in 1856 for a lighthouse along the southern shore of Block Island, but the Lighthouse Board had instead used the funds to rebuild the Block Island North Lighthouse further inland. A lighthouse for the southern end of Block Island would be put off indefinitely. Two years later, in 1858, the steamship Palmetto wrecked off the southern Coast of Block Island and sank.
Nicholas Ball, a former Rhode Island Senator and Block Island native was instrumental in bringing many developments to the island, including a breakwater and harbor along the eastern coast of the island which allowed steamships to dock. He then built several hotels turning the island into a popular vacation destination.
Now that many steamships were frequenting the island, Mr. Ball set about to make the area more navigable by recommending construction of a second lighthouse on the island. He circulated a petition starting in 1872 to the many shipping firms, including the firm that lost the Palmetto many years earlier, that frequented the waters around the island. The petition paid off and on June 10, 1872 Congress appropriated $75,000 for a first class lighthouse and fog signal.
A survey of the southern end of the island was conducted in 1872, and a location with a pond on site was selected as it was favorable for the service of a steam fog signal. By July of 1873, the ten-acre plot of land was purchased from George G. Sheffield, Jr. for $1350, and the plans for the lighthouse and fog signal structures were approved.
Contracts were signed awarding construction of the tower and fog signal to M.S. and J.H. Tynan of Staten Island for $32,380. Paulding, Kemble & Company was awarded the contract for the ironwork in the amount of $9,400. The final contract awarded was for the lantern work which was won by Bailey & Debevoise for $3,448.
By 1874, the fog signal was constructed. The keeper and assistant were hired and placed the fog signal equipment into operation on January 1, 1874. A cistern was built on site to collect water for the steam fog signal, and pipes were laid to the pond to supply the cistern. Revetment of the pond was recommended in anticipation of seasonal drought. Construction on the lighthouse and dwelling was also started in 1874.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1874 had reported that expenses were greater than anticipated, and recommended an additional appropriation of $4,500, which was approved on June 23, 1874.
When finished, the dwelling was a two-and-a-half-story duplex featuring Gothic Revival and Italianate styles. Along the back were twin one-and-a-half-story kitchen wings. The tower, connected to the dwelling by a one-and-a-half story connecting wing, is topped off by a sixteen-sided eleven-and-one-half foot tall lantern. The lantern was fitted with a first-order Fresnel lens custom ordered from Barbier and Fenestre of Paris at a cost of $10,000. It was lighted for the first time on the night of February 1, 1875 displaying a fixed white light.
The revetment of the pond to ensure an adequate water supply for the steam boilers recommended in 1874 was completed in 1875. By 1879, the locomotive style boiler was well worn from use, and the stand-by upright boiler was deemed inadequate for the job. It was recommended that both be replaced, which was completed by 1881.
Various repairs and upkeep took place over the years. A new slate roof replaced the shingle roof in 1886, and an oil house and coal bins were built in 1890. By 1898, both boilers were replaced by twenty-five-horsepower Fitzgibbon Boilers with first class Brown sirens. A year later, an addition was added to the barn, and telephone connections were established with the North Lightstation, the two life-saving stations, and the Weather Bureau on the island.
Erosion at the lighthouse
Various upgrades were also made to the illuminating apparatus. The massive first-order Fresnel lens first utilized a system of four-wicks burning lard oil. This was upgraded to a five-wick system in 1889. Sometime in the 1880s, the lighthouse was upgraded to take advantage of kerosene as it was more cost effective. The illuminating apparatus was again upgraded on February 12, 1907 to an incandescent oil vapor lamp of 45,690 candle power.
The light's characteristic from inception was fixed white. This caused confusion amongst mariners as the other major sea coast lights in the area such as Gay Head and Sankaty Head, both in Massachusetts and Montauk in New York had similar characteristics. Both Sankaty Head and Montauk displayed a fixed white light with a single flash, which could be mistaken for the Southeast light if you didn't notice the flash. Gay Head Light was easier to discern as it displayed a flashing red and white light.
Several changes were made to the light in 1929 to help mariners quickly identify this light. The light color was changed to green by placing a green glass shade over the light source. The power of the light was upgraded to 50,000 candle power by means of a 55 millimeter incandescent oil vapor lamp. And the light was given a flash sequence. Rather than utilizing the "chariot wheel" system to rotate the massive lens, the mercury float system was used instead.
By 1931, the 55 millimeter incandescent oil vapor lamp was replaced with a more efficient 1000 watt C7a filament lamp. This increased the candle power from 50,000 to 169,000. This lamp change cut the flash duration in half, so to lengthen the flash several sections of the first-order lens we swapped out with panels of other discontinued first-order lens that the Lighthouse Board had on hand. This cut the revolutions of the lens from four to two per minute which effectively doubled the length of the flash.
The Great Hurricane of 1938 would start as a category 5 storm in the open Atlantic. But by the time it made landfall in the Northeast, it would be downgraded to a category 3 with gusts reaching 121-mph. Like many of the other lighthouses Narragansett Bay such as the Beavertail, Sakonnet, and Whale Rock, the Southeast Lighthouse took a direct hit.
Because the lighthouse sits high on the Mohegan bluffs, the lighthouse took the full wrath of the hurricane. The oil house was destroyed, many windows in the tower were blown out, and shingles were torn off the structures. The radio beacon tower was blown over and all communications and power to the station were lost. For several days until power was restored, the massive lens had to be turned by hand. Repairs would take place over the next several months.
Frequent fog enshrouded the island, and such was the case of February 10, 1939 when the 416-foot Texaco steam tanker Lightburne ran aground on the rocks below the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse. The tanker had a cargo of 72,000 barrels of gasoline and kerosene which immediately started leaking out.
To make matters worse, an emergency buoy flare was accidentally knocked overboard, which ignited the gas on the water. Luckily the current was flowing away from the ship which kept the fire at bay. The ship's personnel were rescued, but the vessel was considered a total loss. It was blown up by the Coast Guard to remove the navigational hazard near the lighthouse, and has now become a popular dive site.
By the mid-1980s, erosion had threatened the lighthouse. Originally built three-hundred feet from the edge of the bluff, the structure was now only fifty-five feet away. The Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation was formed to save the structure. An engineering firm was hired by the foundation. They estimated the cost to move the structure at $1.7 to $2 million.
In 1990, the Coast Guard citing environmental concerns removed the first-order Fresnel lens and the mercury float used to rotate it. At this time, the light was transferred to a steel skeletal tower and the lighthouse keeper was reassigned.
It would take the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation nearly ten years to come up with the necessary funds. The International Chimney Company of Buffalo, New York and Expert House Movers of Maryland were hired to perform the move. Started on August 13, 1993, it took nineteen days for the 2,000 ton structure to arrive at its new home three-hundred feet inland.
After the move, the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation sought to have the first-order Fresnel lens reinstalled in the tower. However, due to the concerns over the mercury float, this was not possible.
The Coast Guard was able to supply the foundation with another first-order Fresnel lens which was on display in their support center in Virginia. The current Fresnel lens in the tower, relighted on August 27, 1994, was originally the lens from the Cape Lookout Lighthouse in North Carolina.
The Southeast Lighthouse's original first-order Fresnel lens is currently on display in the museum at the lighthouse which is operated by the Block Island Southeast Foundation.
- The Lighthouse Handbook: New England: The Original Field Guide, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2008.
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
- Historic American Engineering Record, Department of the Interior, 1985.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- National Park Service website.
- American Lighthouses, 3rd: A Comprehensive Guide to Exploring Our National Coastal Treasures, Bruce Roberts, Cheryl Shelton-Roberts, and Ray Jones, 2012.
- Block Island, Donald A. D'Amato and Henry A.L. Brown, 1999.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on Block Island out in Rhode Island Sound. Take one of the ferry services from either Point Judith or New London to Block Island. Once on the island, take Water Street south. It will change names to Spring Street and then to Mohegan Trail. Mohegan Trail will take you right past the lighthouse.
Access: Grounds open. Tower open in season.
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