Block Island Southeast Lighthouse is one of the most visually striking lighthouses in the United States. Though the tower is relatively short, its flashing green light shines forth over 200 feet above the water due its elevated location atop Mohegan Bluffs.
A lighthouse was built on the northern tip of Block Island in 1829. Thirteen years later, I.W.P. Lewis recommended that a light be placed on the island’s southern shore to help the southern coasting trade access Long Island Sound, but it would be years before it would be built.
In 1858, the wreck of the Palmetto on the reef below Mohegan Bluffs sparked urgent calls for immediate installation of at least a fog signal and some kind of lighted beacon. Even so, it wasn’t until 1872 that President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill authorizing $75,000 for a lighthouse and steam fog signal at the southerly end of the island. Two-and-a-half more years passed before the light began operation, and shortly thereafter President Grant stopped at Block Island to view the lighthouse.
A site on the southeast end of the island was selected due in part to the presence of a fresh pond that could supply water for the steam fog signal. Difficulties in obtaining title to the property delayed start on the station until July 1873, when the purchase of the parcel from George G. Sheffield for $1,350 was finalized. The first-class steam siren, built in duplicate, commenced operation on January 1, 1874, but work on the lighthouse continued throughout that year.
Block Island Southeast Lighthouse consists of a redbrick tower and attached keeper’s dwelling built by M.S. and J.H. Tynan upon a foundation of granite blocks. The fifty-two foot tower, which shows Victorian and Gothic Revival influences, is twenty-five feet wide at its base and tapers to fifteen feet at the lantern deck. A cast-iron spiral staircase leads up the tower to the fifteen-foot-tall, cast-iron lantern that has sixteen sides, rather than the more common eight or ten sides. The head keeper was given one side of the dwelling, while his assistants were given apartments in the other half. The total cost of the lighthouse, including its steam-powered fog signal system, was $79,500. In contrast, the first keeper, Henry Clark, only received $600 a year while on duty there. When the original $75,000 appropriation ran out, the Lighthouse Board was forced to request an additional $4,500 so that the pond on the property could be revetted by a wall in order to store a larger supply of water for the fog signal.
The new station was first lighted on February 1, 1875. The optic was a huge, fixed first-order Fresnel lens from Barbier and Fenestre that was custom-built for this lighthouse, cost $10,000, and was big enough for several people to stand in. The lamp had a series of four concentric wicks set in lard oil. Each wick burned roughly one-half inch of length daily, and the station consumed around 900 gallons of lard oil in a year. In 1880, the light source was changed to a single lamp powered by kerosene. The illuminant was changed once again on February 12, 1907, when an incandescent oil vapor lamp replaced the kerosene lamp.
The station was electrified shortly after the introduction of the new lens and a radiobeacon was established as an additional aid for mariners. As before, the captain of the City of Chattanooga found the improvement very helpful, and communicated his gratefulness to the Lighthouse Service: “Through practice I have found that great reliance can be placed on the accuracy of the radio direction finder, as fogs, snow, or other thick weather does not interfere with either the volume or direction, as in the case with sounds from steam or other whistle signals.”
Because of its exposed position high on a bluff, the lighthouse took the full force of the legendary hurricane that hit New England on September 21, 1938. Windows were blown out, shingles torn off, the oil house destroyed, and power was lost. The giant lens had to be turned by hand for several days, but compared to many other lighthouses in the region, the damage at the station was minor. Marie Carr, wife of Keeper Earl Carr, later recalled the devastation caused by the hurricane: “My windows were broken in the living room. The tower windows were breaking. Everything was going. Somebody said, ‘Look at the garage! The garage is gone, the shack is gone.’ It was scary! The stones came up the bank, up that cliff there, right into my living room, and they went up and put the light out. So the men put dishpans over their heads, and they went up the tower and they had to turn the light by hand all night long.” One good thing did come of the hurricane. The dwelling received indoor bathrooms. The outhouse was the only outbuilding to survive the hurricane, but the keepers went out the next morning and pushed it over.
During a heavy fog that covered the waters around Block Island on February 10, 1939, Keeper Earl Carr thought he heard a ship’s fog whistle. Going outside, he couldn’t see anything, but the whistle was loud enough to indicate a ship very close to shore. Aboard the 416-foot Texaco oil tanker Lightburne, the crew heard the lighthouse’s fog signal, but mistakenly thought they were still three or four miles offshore. Instead, the ship ran aground on the rocks just below the lighthouse and began quickly taking on water. Some of the 72,000 barrels of gasoline and kerosene that the ship was carrying began spilling into the water. When an automatic flair lifebuoy fell into the water from a railing on the ship, the gasoline in the water caught fire, no more than fifty yards from the ship. Fortunately, the wind was blowing in a favorable direction, and loss of life was avoided. The thirty-seven crewmembers were rescued by the Coast Guard, but the Lightburne wasn’t as fortunate. After some of its fuel was offloaded, it was dynamited and sent to the bottom of the sound.
By this time, erosion had reduced the distance between the lighthouse and the cliff edge from 300 feet when the lighthouse was built to just 55 feet, and the lighthouse was in danger of toppling over the bluff. A dedicated group of local volunteers had formed the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation in 1983 and over the next decade raised the necessary funds to move the structure 230 feet farther inland. Acts of Congress deeded the lighthouse and the grounds to the Foundation, as well as $1 million in matching funds. The Foundation, whose slogan was “Nothing Moves the Imagination Like a Lighthouse, and Nothing Moves a Lighthouse Like Imagination,” sold thirteen acres of the land they received to the state parks system for $600,000, and roughly $400,000 more was raised through other efforts.
The International Chimney Company of Buffalo, New York won the contract to move the lighthouse. After various weak areas like the chimneys were braced, the lighthouse was jacked up and a rail system placed under it. Since the successful relocation of Block Island Southeast Lighthouse in August 1993, the International Chimney Company has moved other historic lighthouses, including Highland Lighthouse and Nauset Lighthouse on Cape Cod, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head Lighthouse, and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.
After the move, the Foundation received a first-order Fresnel lens manufactured by L. Sautter & Cie. that had been used in Cape Lookout Lighthouse in North Carolina. The station was relighted on August 27, 1994 and remains an active aid to navigation. Prior to being relocated to Block Island, the Fresnel lens had been on display in a Coast Guard building in Portsmouth, Virginia since 1967. The Carteret County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina were not exactly thrilled to see the lens moved so far north, and in January 1995, its members signed a resolution calling for the lens to be returned to its “ancestral home.” Wayne Wheeler of the U.S. Lighthouse Society had little sympathy for the commissioners attempt to have the lens returned to North Carolina. “If it was so important to them, why didn’t they do something about it?” he asked.
Cape Lookout’s lens remains active in the lantern room at Block Island Southeast Lighthouse, and during the summer, the public is allowed inside the tower, which houses a small museum and gift shop. The exterior of the lighthouse was restored in 2003, and plans call for the spacious lighthouse to have a pair of bed-and-breakfast suites when the interior is finally restored.