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 Block Island Southeast, RI    
Lighthouse accessible by ferry.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Boo! Lighthouse haunted.Active Fresnel Lens
Description: Mariners have always given Block Island a wide berth, as the six-mile-long island is surrounded by submerged rocks and sandy shoals. Still, many ships have met their end here on what was often called the "stumbling block" of the New England coast.

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.

Mohegan Bluffs received its name from an Indian battle that took place on the southern tip of the island. A war party of fifty Mohegan Indians traveled from Long Island in their war canoes, came ashore, and launched a raid against the Block Island natives. The local Indians repelled the attack, backed the Mohegans up to the edge of the bluffs, then reportedly drove them over the cliff, forcing some to fall 160 feet to the water and rocks below.

Block Island Southeast Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
In 1856, Congress allocated $9,000 to build a lighthouse at this site, but the Lighthouse Board used the money to rebuild Block Island North Lighthouse instead. 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 funding for a lighthouse and fog signal. Two and a half more years passed before the light began operation. (President Grant later visited the station while he was still in office.)

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 of 1873, when the purchase of the parcel from George G. Sheffield for $1,350 was finalized. The fog signal commenced operation on January 1, 1874, but work on the lighthouse continued throughout that year.

The Block Island Southeast Lighthouse consists of a tower and attached keeper’s duplex built by M.S. and J.H. Tynan with red brick 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 inside leads to the unusual fifteen-foot tall cast-iron lantern that has sixteen sides, rather than the more common eight or ten sides. 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.

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 whale oil. Each wick burned roughly one-half inch of length daily, and the station consumed around 900 gallons of whale oil in a year. In 1880, the light source was changed to a single lamp powered by kerosene.

As the static light was too often mistaken by ship captains to be the mast light on another ship or the fixed light at Montauk, the American Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots successfully petitioned for the characteristic of the beacon to be changed changed in 1929 from fixed white to a green flash every 3.7 seconds. To produce the flashing pattern, the original fixed Fresnel lens was replaced with a revolving first-order Fresnel lens, composed of eight panels cannibalized from other lenses: three of the flash panels were of Henry-Lepaute origin, while the other five were manufactured by L. Sautter & Co. The lens floated in a tub of mercury and was turned by means of a mechanism similar to that used in a grandfather clock using a 100-pound weight that hung in the tower’s stairwell.

Block Island Southeast Lighthouse before relocation
Photograph courtesy Library of U.S. Coast Guard
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.

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 emergency flare was accidentally knocked overboard, the gasoline in the water caught on fire, no more than fifty yards from the ship. Fortunately, the wind was blowing in a favorable direction, and loss of life was avoided.

In 1990, the Coast Guard ordered the removal of the mercury bath for environmental and safety reasons, erected a new light on a steel tower behind the lighthouse, and deactivated the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse. Erosion had reduced the distance between the lighthouse and the cliff edge from 300 feet when the lighthouse was built to just 55 away and threatened to topple the lighthouse. A dedicated group of local volunteers formed the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation and raised the necessary funds to move the structure 300 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 sold thirteen acres of the land they received to the state parks system for $600,000, and almost $200,000 more was raised through other efforts.

The International Chimney Company of Buffalo, New York won the contract to do the actual moving. After strengthening various areas of the building, it was jacked up and a rail system placed under it. The Fresnel lens in the lantern room along with its toxic bed of mercury were removed before the move. Since the successful relocation of the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse in August of 1993, the International Chimney Company has moved several other historic lighthouses, including Highland Lighthouse and Nauset Lighthouse on Cape Cod, and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.

After the move, the Foundation renovated the interior and exterior of the lighthouse and received a first-order Fresnel lens manufactured by L. Sautter & Cie. that had been used in the Cape Lookout Lighthouse in North Carolina. The station was relighted on August 27, 1994 and remains an active aid to navigation. The lighthouse is open to the public in the summer; the Foundation operates a small museum and gift shop in the tower.

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.
  4. The Keeper’s Log, Summer 1993.

Location: Located at the southeastern end of Block Island, roughly fourteen miles offshore from Point Judith.
Latitude: 41.15343
Longitude: -71.55213

For a larger map of Block Island Southeast 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. Once on the island, the lighthouse can be reached from the ferry landing at Old Harbor by going south on Spring Street for 1.5 miles. It is possible to walk to the lighthouse, but bikes, mopeds, and cars can also 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 choose a company in Old Harbor.

The Block Island Southeast Lighthouse is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends from Memorial, daily from late June to Labor Day, and then on weekends until Columbus Day. Call (401) 466-5009 for more information and to confirm hours. There is a small gift shop in the base of the tower, and you can pay for an escorted tour to the top of the tower. The interior of the large duplex dwelling is being renovated and is not open to the public.

The lighthouse is owned by the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation. Grounds open, tower open in season.

Find the closest hotels to Block Island Southeast Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
During a visit to the lighthouse in 2009, an avian radar system was stationed near the lighthouse to monitor migration routes and flight heights. Deepwater Wind Rhode Island will be using the equipment through 2011 to study the effect that an offshore wind farm, which will be built about three miles from the lighthouse, could have on the bird population. The wind farm will provide enough electricity for most of the businesses and residences on Block Island.

See our List of Lighthouses in Rhode Island

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