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. Extending nearly two miles north of Block Island's northern point, lies a dangerous shoal known as Sandy Point. The shoal, along with frequent fog in the area has claimed many vessels. From 1819 to 1838, nearly sixty vessels were wrecked in the area.
The northern passage into Long Island Sound was marked on the northern side by Point Judith as early as 1810. However, The Lighthouse Establishment recognized the need for a light to mark the southern side of the passage, and on March 2, 1829, Congress appropriated $5,500 for a lighthouse on the northern end of Block Island. On May 14, State of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations ceded twenty acres to the Federal Government.
The first lighthouse for Sandy Point was constructed later that year. It encompassed a one-story stone 40-by-20-foot dwelling with and attached kitchen at the rear. Octagonal wooden towers extended six feet above the ridge of the roof on either ends of the building showing lights fifty-eight feet above sea level. The lights did little to impact shipwrecks in the area. Less than two years later, the schooner Warrior was driven aground in a gale. Twenty-one people were lost in the incident.
Although the tower contained two lights, many mariners complained that they looked like a single light from several miles out to sea. And only at a distance of less than two miles could one tell that they were two separate lights.
Block Island North Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
The lighthouse was built on soft sand that was susceptible to erosion, and eventually washed into the sea. Prior to that happening, an appropriation on March 3, 1837 provided $5,000 for the rebuilding of the lighthouse on Block Island. Despite the design flaws of the twin light design, a new lighthouse of the same design was built a quarter-mile inland. The tower would last for nearly twenty years, before it too was fall to erosion.
By the 1850s, the Block Island North Lighthouse was in danger of being lost due to erosion. Congress had appropriated $9,000 on August 18, 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 granite dwelling with a single attached tower was constructed.
By the early 1860s, erosion was threatening this station as well. An appropriation of $3,500 was made by Congress on July 2, 1864 with the heading "For repairs & renovations at Block Island lt-ho." It appears that piers were fabricated to attempt to stop the encroaching sea, however, and entry of the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1866 stated that the piers did not work and that the structure was still endangered.
Funds for the fourth and current lighthouse to occupy the point were appropriated on July 28, 1866. The $15,000 appropriation provided for a new granite dwelling with a brown octagonal iron tower extending through the roof. The tower's height was fifty-five feet showing a fixed white light from a fourth-order Fresnel lens which was visible for 13 1/2 miles. The light was displayed for the first time on the night of September 15, 1868.
In 1875, when the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse was completed, the Sandy Point Lighthouse was renamed to the Block Island North Lighthouse.
One of the worst maritime disasters to occur in the area took place 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, many slowly froze to death. There are reports of a man taking his own life rather than continuing to freeze in the lifeboat.
Many of the survivors of the disaster ended up at the Block Island North Lighthouse as it was impossible to row the lifeboats against the gale. They simply drifted for hours until they ended up running aground at Sandy Point on Block Island shortly before 6 am.
One of the survivors managed to make it up to the lighthouse where he summoned Keeper Elam P. Littlefield for help. Littlefield's entire family and two guests that were staying with the family immediately sprang into action caring for the frozen survivors. Estimates put the passenger and crew count around 157 with only 19 surviving.
The lighthouse was automated in 1956 and would stay in service until 1973, at which time the light was transferred to a steel skeletal tower nearby. That same year, the twenty-eight acres at the northern tip of the island was acquired by the United States Fish and Wildlife service including the lighthouse to be used as a wildlife refuge. Over the years, the lighthouse would deteriorate and fall prey to vandals.
The Town of New Shoreham formed the North Light Commission and purchased the Block Island North Lighthouse and two acres of land in 1984 from the Fish and Wildlife Service for $1.00. After several years of rehabilitation and renovation, the structure was put back to working order.
The group worked with the Coast Guard to move the modern optic from the steel tower back into the lighthouse, which was completed on August 5, 1989. Several years later in 1993, the group opened up a museum on the ground floor of the dwelling which featured the station's fourth-order Fresnel lens. By 2001, the roof and ironwork of the lantern was in poor condition and needed an estimated $700,000 of work.
The North Light Commission received $400,000 from the federal Transportation Enhancement Program in 2002, and composed the rest through grants and donations over several years. In anticipation of the tower's removal, the light was moved back to a temporary skeletal tower nearby in 2003.
It would be five years before the iron tower was removed and shipped to Massachusetts for rehabilitation. It was returned a year later and reinstalled on the dwelling in the summer of 2009. The station's original fourth-order Fresnel lens which was on display in the museum was re-installed in the lantern room and relighted on October 23, 2010.
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 north to Dodge Street. Take Dodge Street west to Corn Neck Road. Follow Corn Neck Road north for 3.8 miles to the lighthouse.
Access: Grounds open. Lighthouse open in season.View more Block Island North Lighthouse pictures