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 Block Island North, RI    
Lighthouse accessible by ferry.A hike of some distance required.Interior open or museum on site.
Description: In the days of sail, long before mariners possessed the arrays of electronic navigational gear that are taken for granted today, the unseen hazards marked by lighthouses were considerably more dangerous to vessels. The sea, in those days, was by far the most efficient method of transporting people and goods, dangerous as it could be.

Six-mile-long Block Island was an exceptionally treacherous place for mariners. In a twenty-year stretch during the early 1800s, thirty-four schooners, fifteen sloops, eight brigs, and two larger ships all met their end on the rocks surrounding the island. Vessels transiting the passage between Point Judith and Block Island, the northern gateway to Long Island Sound, had to be mindful of a one-and-a-half-mile-long reef that extended from Sandy Point, the northern tip of Block Island. Navigational aids were established on each side of the passage to assist mariners. While the aid at Point Judith Point, first established in 1810, sat atop a relatively stable headland, the site on the northern tip of Block Island has historically been beset with problems.

Four lighthouses have been constructed on the northern extremity of Block Island. The light from the first Block Island North Lighthouse, which stood forty-five feet tall and commenced operation in 1829, could be seen for twelve miles. Unfortunately, the extremely unstable sand and gravel on the point were prone to rapid erosion, and the lighthouse was swept out to sea after just a few years. In 1837, a rectangular, granite keeper's dwelling, with a light tower rising from each end of its pitched roof, was built about a quarter mile inland from the site of the first light. The two lights were aligned on a north-south axis, and mariners were warned that they might “appear as one light until you are within two and three miles of them,” depending on the angle of approach.

The 1837 lighthouse was also eventually lost to the sea, and a third lighthouse was built in 1857 even farther inland on a "proper site." The 1857 lighthouse consisted of a fifty-foot-tall granite tower and dwelling. In 1865, piers were built to "arrest the encroachment of the sea" that was endangering the structures, but still Congress was forced to appropriate $15,000 in 1866 so a fourth lighthouse could be constructed on a "more eligible site." The foundations of the 1837 and 1857 lighthouses can reportedly still be seen out on the point.

Aerial view of Block Island North Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The fourth and current lighthouse went into service on September 15, 1867. The two-story dwelling was built using Connecticut granite with a lantern-topped iron tower protruding from the northern end of the pitched roof. A fourth-order Fresnel was employed in the lantern room to produce a white light that was visible for 13 1/2 miles. The former structures at the station were taken down to protect the new site from the destructive action of the wind.

Even though the lighthouse is 700 feet from the tip of Sandy Point, it is still only two feet above mean high water. The building somewhat resembles a church or schoolhouse, showing Victorian and Gothic Revival architectural influences and is similar in design to several other lighthouses built around the same time, such as Morgan Point, Great Captains, Plum Island, Sheffield Island, and Old Field Point. Hiram D. Ball, who had been appointed keeper of the old lighthouse by President Abraham Lincoln six years earlier, took control of the new lighthouse and served there for thirty more years.

Being transferred to Block Island North was a relief to some keepers weary of the constant isolation of lighthouse life. While still in a remote location, at least fishermen came to the point frequently, people visited the lighthouse, and the keeper actually got a chance to get to know some of the island’s year-round residents. When Elam Littlefield was transferred from the extremely isolated Whale Rock Lighthouse to Block Island North in 1891, he surely felt some of that relief, but unfortunately, it was to be short-lived.

When the island’s postmaster, Eugene Rose, decided to put up a fishing shanty on the point near the lighthouse, Littlefield informed him that he was on government property and would have to remove the shack. A feud broke out between the two men that lasted for five years. Postmaster Rose wrote to the Lighthouse Service accusing Littlefield of all sorts of corrupt and criminal acts, but when asked to provide proof, could not do so. Finally, the Service gave Rose a temporary license to put his shack on government property at an annual cost of $10, which he never paid. At times, Littlefield must have longed for the peace and quiet of Whale Rock.

The Block Island North Lighthouse was automated in 1956 and deactivated in 1973, being replaced be a nearby light on a steel tower. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the station and surrounding land in 1973 for use as a wildlife refuge. The lighthouse was left vacant and fell victim to vandals. The Town of New Shoreham established the North Light Commission with the aim of preserving the vandalized, rundown, and boarded-up lighthouse, and in 1984, an agreement was reached with the Fish and Wildlife Service wherein the lighthouse and surrounding two acres were given to the town for $1. In 1989, the light was reactivated, with a modern plastic lens serving as a beacon, and four years later, a small museum was opened on the first floor of the dwelling featuring the fourth-order Fresnel lens formerly used in the lantern room.

A 2001 inspection revealed that the iron tower was badly corroded, especially where it met the granite dwelling. To help offset the cost of repairs, the town was awarded $400,000 from the federal Transportation Enhancement Program in June of 2002, and to this sum was added $100,000 from a State Preservation Grant in December of 2006.

As the entire tower had to be removed, a temporary light was established on a short tower just north of the lighthouse. After repairs were complete, the Coast Guard notified the public during a four-week advertisement period in September of 2010 that the temporary light would be extinguished. If not objections are received, Block Island North Light will be established as a private aid to navigation during a relighting ceremony on October 23rd.

Photo Gallery: 1 2

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
  3. America’s Atlantic Coast Lighthouses, Kenneth Kochel, 1996.

Location: Located approximately fourteen miles offshore from Point Judith on the northern tip of Block Island. The surrounding land is part of the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Latitude: 41.22764
Longitude: -71.57583

For a larger map of Block Island North Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Block Island is accessible via plane, ferry, or private boat. Ferry service is available from Point Judith, RI, Newport, RI, New London, CT, and Montauk, NY. Bikes, mopeds, and cars can be rented at the ferry landing. Note that companies like Old Harbor Bike Shop do rent cars even though it isn't obvious by their name. If you arrive by ferry from RI or CT you will disembark at Old Harbor. Some rental companies are located in New Harbor and will pick you up at the ferry landing, but it might be more convenient to choose a company in Old Harbor.

Once on the island, the Block Island North Lighthouse can be reached from the ferry landing in Old Harbor by going north on Water Street, left on Dodge Street, and then right at the 4-way Stop onto Corn Neck Road. Corn Neck Road will take you four miles to the northern end of the island, where you need to park and then walk northeast along the shore for about a half mile to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is home to a museum that is open weekends from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and daily from late June to mid-September. Call (401) 466-3200 for more information and to confirm hours.

The lighthouse is owned by the Town of New Shoreham and managed by the Block Island North Light Association. Grounds open, lighthouse open in season, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Block Island North Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Marilyn writes:
This is an incredibly beautiful lighthouse and well worth the long walk through sand to reach it. Truth be told, I didn't complete the long walk myself, but fully appreciate why one would want to. :-)

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