Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-11-20.
Watch Hill reportedly received its name as early as the mid-1740s. A beacon or watch tower was erected on a hill during the King George's War where incoming naval attacks could be quickly identified. This beacon served until its destruction during a gale in 1781. Many mariners immediately petitioned for a replacement beacon to be constructed.
By 1794, a study was conducted to determine the best area to build a lighthouse on Long Island Sound. The proposed areas were Watch Hill in Rhode Island, and Little Gull Island and Sand's Point in New York. The three locations proposed divided the many area sea captains, with each favoring a location over the others. This controversy went on for many years, with the Little Gull Island location being selected. The tower was lit in 1805.
But the other two locations would not necessarily lose out. President Thomas Jefferson signed into law "An Act to provide for lighthouses in Long Island Sound" on January 22, 1806. The law provided $6,000 for the creation of each lighthouse, with the locations at Watch Hill in Rhode Island and Sand's Point in North Hempstead, New York being selected.
The government purchased four acres of land from George and Thankful Foster for $500 in 1807. The Watch Hill Lighthouse, the second in Rhode Island after the Beavertail Lighthouse, was completed in 1808. The tower, constructed of wood, stood thirty-five feet tall and was illuminated with ten whale oil lamps with parabolic reflectors. Also constructed at that time was a one-story keeper's residence.
U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo
This lighting signature would change in 1838 when the light was given a "flash" to help distinguish it from the Stonington Harbor Lighthouse. The tower would be used until 1855 when it was threatened with erosion and the keeper's dwelling was deemed not worthy of repair. The Lighthouse Board must have known that it would eventually need replacement as an appropriation of $8,300 was made on August 3, 1854.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1855 had the following entry:
For rebuilding the light house and keeper's dwelling at Watch hill and for repairs of sea wall to preserve house site eight thousand three hundred dollars.
The new forty-five foot square tower, constructed of granite blocks and lined with brick was built further from the water due to previous erosion. The tower was topped off with a cast-iron lantern room outfitted with a fourth order Fresnel lens which exhibited a fixed white light for the first time on February 1, 1857. Also constructed at that time were a new two-story brick keeper's dwelling which was constructed fifty feet to the northwest of the original dwelling and an oil storage shed.
Although the keepers of the lighthouse reported many shipwrecks near the station, there are a few that stand out. The first was the wreck of the steamer Metis which sunk after a collision with a schooner Nettie Cushing on August 31, 1872. Local residents were able to rescue thirty-two people and were later awarded a bronze medal by the government. Estimates are that 130 people perished that night.
The second disaster occurred during a blizzard on the night of February 11, 1907. The schooner Harry Knowlton collided with a passenger steamer Larchmont. Captain George McVey, who was below deck preparing to retire for the night, said that the Larchmont was heading into a gale near Watch Hill when he heard several blasts of the ship's whistle. As he returned to the pilot house, he saw the schooner Harry Knowlton suddenly change course and head straight for the Larchmont. The crew spun the wheel in an effort to avoid collision, but it was too late. The schooner crashed into the port-side tearing a gaping hole in the bow and began taking on water.The Harry Knowlton made a run for shore. The crew manned the pumps which kept the vessel afloat until it was near Watch Hill. At that point, the crew abandoned the vessel and made for shore in the lifeboat.
Of the passengers aboard the Larchmont that made it to lifeboats, many were ill-prepared. As the collision occurred at night with temperatures hovering around freezing, even making it to the lifeboat did not guarantee survival. There are reports of a man taking his own life rather than continuing to freeze in the lifeboat. Estimates put the passenger and crew count around 157 with only 19 surviving.
Like many of the other lighthouses in the area such as Whale Rock and the Saybrook Breakwater, the Watch Hill Lighthouse would take significant damage during the Great Hurricane of 1938. The keeper reported that waves were breaking over the top of the lighthouse, smashing the glass of the lantern room, and flooding the tower with sea water. The storm surge turned the point into an island. The lighthouse was operational again within a few weeks of the storm.
The lighthouse would take another category 3 hurricane strike in 1954. Hurricane Carol struck on August 31, and like the hurricane of 1938, the entire point flooded with sea water. The assistant keeper's wife reported what she thought was a riptide in the backyard. When the storm finally passed, the road to the lighthouse was in poor condition, and the east bank of Watch Hill Point was severely eroded almost compromising the foundation of the fog signal building.
In 1962, the Leif Viking, a 343-foot, 3,805-ton Norwegian freighter carrying 728 tons of newsprint ran aground on Gangway Rock, just 250 yards from the station. It would remain stranded for nine days before being freed and towed to New York City.
The lighthouse was automated on August 31, 1986. At this point, the Fresnel lens was removed and replaced with a FA-251 modern optic. A timer turns on the beacon at night, and fog-sensors beams can detect fog at a distance of five miles. A thirty year lease was signed with the Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association to care for and maintain the station. The group operates a museum in the oil house that is open during select times over the summer.
- Northeast Lights - Lighthouses and Lightships, Robert G. Bachand, 1989.
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
- New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide website.
- RHODE ISLAND: A Guide to the Smallest State/American Guide Series, Workers of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Rhode Island, 1937.
- Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
- U.S. Coast Guard website.
- "Forty Years Ago Steamer Metis Went to bottom," Staff, The Day, August 28, 1912.
- "Many other sea disasters occurred off Watch Hill," Jean Ashburn Keeney, The Day, March 17, 1978.
Directions: From Route 1A in Westerly, follow Watch Hill Road to Westerly Road. At the end, turn onto Bluff Road. The lighthouse sits at the end of Lighthouse Road, however the parking lot at the lighthouse is for handicap parking only. You can park in town and walk the road to the lighthouse.
Access: The lighthouse sits on the grounds of an active Coast Guard base. Grounds open. Dwelling and tower closed.
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