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 Point Judith, RI    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Lighthouse appeared in movie.Active Fresnel Lens
Description: Point Judith (some early maps mark it as “Point Juda Neck”) protrudes over a mile into the Atlantic Ocean and has plagued mariners since the first European ships visited the continent. Heavy seas and dense fog, which frequent the point and nearby dangerous shoals such as Squid Ledge, have led to the area being one of a number of sites known to sailors as a “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The name of the point is most likely derived from the Tribe of Judah in the Bible, as settlements named Jerusalem and Galilee are located nearby.

Although there may have been earlier beacons at the site, the first official U.S. Point Judith Lighthouse was completed in 1810. On February 10th of 1808, Congress passed an act that provided, "That the Secretary of the Treasury shall be authorized to cause a good and sufficient light-house to be erected on Point Judith, in the State of Rhode Island, and to appoint the keeper of said light-house, under the Direction of the President of the United States, and otherwise to provide for such light-house at the expense of the United States."

The Point Judith Lighthouse, for which Congress had allocated $5,000, was a wooden tower equipped with a spider lamp that burned whale oil. The lighting apparatus rotated on a copper platform that was designed to block out the light briefly every two and a half minutes. In September of 1815 a powerful hurricane destroyed the tower and damaged several other lighthouses in the Northeast.

A replacement tower was constructed at the point in 1816. Built of rough granite blocks faced with courses of Connecticut freestone and coated by cement, the octagonal tower stood thirty-five feet tall. The base of the tower was twenty feet wide, tapering to nine feet at the lantern level. Winslow Lewis designed the optic first used in the lantern – ten lamps equipped with 8.5” reflectors and green convex lenses and powered by whale oil. The lamps were divided into two clusters of five, which were set upon two copper tables and rotated by the rotating mechanism salvaged from the old tower.

An interesting side note is that, according to an 1818 report written by the superintendent of lighthouses for Rhode Island, many of the lighting apparatuses stolen from American lighthouses by the British during the War of 1812 ended up in Bermuda. Through intermediaries, some of those lights ended up in the hands of Winslow Lewis, who reinstalled at least two of them right back into American lighthouses – at Point Judith and at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard.

As was the case with many old light stations, dampness was a constant problem during the winter, and on occasion ice formed on the lantern panes. Sometimes the keeper had no choice but to wait for the weather to warm up a bit before trying to remove the ice, for fear of breaking the glass in the process.

The early keeper’s dwelling at Point Judith only had one bedroom, located in the attic. The keeper and his family reportedly slept in the kitchen during the winter to keep warm. Major repairs and upgrades were applied to both the tower and the keeper’s dwelling in 1837, and the resulting seven-room residence provided a much more accommodating space for the keeper.

Point Judith Lighthouse with attached dwelling
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In 1857, a new Point Judith Lighthouse, an octagonal brownstone tower rising sixty-five feet above the water, was constructed, and a new brick dwelling was erected for the keeper and attached to the new tower for convenience of access. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room and produced a light visible up to sixteen miles at sea. The light’s characteristic was to occult once every fifteen seconds.

The waters off Point Judith were a major route for ship traffic going between various New England ports and New York. By the early 1870s, mariners were formally requesting that the foghorn at Point Judith be changed to a fog whistle, saying that the signal was often drowned out by the pounding surf. In addition, a whistle would make it easier to differentiate Point Judith from the fog siren at nearby Beavertail Lighthouse. In 1873, a new fog signal was installed, but ships continued to become stranded at the point.

Over the years, even with the presence of a lighthouse at Point Judith, many ships have met their end on its shoals. A partial list includes the Normandy (1864), American Eagle (1870), Acusionet (1870), Venus (1877), Cucktoo (1882), Harry Barry (1888), Anita (1888), Mars (1892), Blue Jay (1896), Amanda E. (1902), and the Comet (1973), among many others. In 1855 alone, at least sixteen ships either ran aground or were wrecked within sight of the light station.

Perhaps this casualty list shouldn’t be too surprising, given the amount of ship traffic in the area – in 1907, lighthouse personnel counted 22,860 ships passing by during daylight hours, and an estimated twice that number at night. This was four times the number of vessels entering New York Harbor that same year. In 1906, a bill was introduced in Congress to station a lightship offshore from Point Judith, in addition to the lighthouse. The proposal was dropped two years later in the face of opposition from the Lighthouse Board, which insisted that the lighthouse was sufficient.

The great hurricane that hit New England in September of 1938 destroyed 250 feet of the seawall around the light station. In some places, the storm removed as much as thirty feet of shoreline, but the lighthouse survived unscathed.

Various changes and additions were made to the station over the years. In 1899, the top half of the tower was painted brown to give it a distinctive daymark. A new fixed, fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in operation on January 2, 1907, likely replacing a revolving lens of the same order. A brick oil house was added in 1917, and then a stone fog signal building in 1923. The Coast Guard administrative buildings that stand today were built in 1937. The station was automated in 1954, and the keeper’s house was torn down that same year.

In 2000, the lighthouse underwent its first major renovation in over a century. A temporary beacon was put in place while the lantern room and Fresnel lens were removed for refurbishment. Some of the original brownstone blocks had to be replaced during the restoration effort that lasted four months.

Point Judith Lighthouse is located on what is now the Point Judith Coast Guard Station. In addition to maintaining the lighthouse, the guardsmen on duty serve in search and rescue operations and law enforcement. The lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation and still uses a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The lighthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The grounds are open to the public, although the interior of the lighthouse, oil house, and fog signal building are not.

Photo Gallery: 1 2

References

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

Location: Located on Point Judith, marking the western side of the entrance to Rhode Island Sound.
Latitude: 41.36101
Longitude: -71.48141

For a larger map of Point Judith Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From the intersection of Highways 1 and 108 south of Narrangansett, follow Highway 108 south to the Coast Guard's Point Judith Station. Though the lighthouse is on an active Coast Guard Station, public access to the grounds is typically possible through an open gate that connects to the parking area just north of the station.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Point Judith Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Point Judith Lighthouse, along with several other sites in the vicinity, appears in the movie Dan in Real Life. When Dan has to escape the embarrassing situation he has created at his family's summer home, he takes his youngest daughter, the only one who will go with him, and a niece and a nephew on a short drive. Finding the bowling alley closed, they end up at Point Judith Lighthouse where Dan asks the kids, "Do you know why we have lighthouses?" One of the youngsters responds, "Because they're neat?" To which, Dan answers, "That's right. Yes, and also because they help when its dark out. They uh help keep boats safe and keep us from crashing into the rocks because when you're out there, and you're being tossed back and forth by those big dark waves and you think that you'll never feel land again and that you can just split into a million pieces and sink down all the way down deep. It's the light that keeps us on course. It's the light."

That quote has to be my favorite in the movie along with when Dan's weeping daughter Cara screams out, "YOU...ARE A MURDERER OF LOVE!"


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