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 Prudence Island, RI    
Lighthouse accessible by ferry.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: Known to local natives as Chibacoweda, meaning little place separated by a passage, Prudence Island lies just over a mile offshore in the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay. Roger Williams and Governor John Winthrop purchased Prudence Island from Sachem Canonicut for twenty fathom of wampum (a fathom is six feet) and two coats in 1637. Williams soon thereafter purchased two smaller islands nearby and continuing a list of virtues named them Hope and Patience. Life must not have been exactly perfect, for a tiny island off Hope Island is named Despair.

The thirty-foot-tall octagonal granite tower at Prudence Island is the oldest lighthouse in Rhode Island and one of the few lighthouses in the country to retain a “birdcage” lantern. Originally built on Goat Island near Newport in 1823, the structure was dismantled in 1851 and moved to Sandy Point on the east side of Prudence Island, where it was reassembled and returned to service on January 17, 1852. The light is only twenty-eight feet above the water and is visible for ten miles.

A dwelling for the keeper was built about 190 feet west of the tower. The structure had six rooms, with a kitchen attached to its west side. As Sandy Point was prone to flooding during storms, an elevated walkway linked the dwelling to the tower.

Prudence Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The original Winslow Lewis light apparatus in the Prudence Island Lighthouse was replaced in 1857 by a fifth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light. In the mid-1880s, a fog bell with an automatic striking mechanism was added to the station. In 1924, the light’s characteristic was changed to flashing white, with a weight-activated rotating mechanism. The tower was electrified in 1939, at which time the revolving lens was replaced with a fixed, fourth-order lens, further simplifying the task of caring for the light. The light was automated in 1961, and the present modern beacon flashes green every six seconds.

The one-acre lighthouse grounds stood entirely on beach sand. Over the years, various keepers were allowed to keep a garden and some farm animals on land owned by neighbor Lewis Herreshoff. A rift developed at one point between Herreshoff and Keeper Thompson when some of the neighbor’s cattle wandered into the keeper’s garden and ate all the vegetables. The keeper threw stones at the beasts to frighten them away, and one of them was badly injured, later dying. Herreshoff asked that the keeper put a fence around his garden, but Thompson had a wife and four children and said he couldn’t afford such an expense. Eventually that plot of land was purchased by the government for $450, and a fence was erected around it.

On September 21, 1938 seventy-one year old Martin Thompson watched from the lighthouse dwelling as the winds picked up and the swells grew in the channel between Prudence Island and the mainland. Thompson, a former Keeper at Prudence Island, had a cottage near the lighthouse, but thought the keeper’s dwelling was the place to be in a storm. Two other guests, a Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, were also staying at the lighthouse with Keeper George T. Gustavus and his wife and son. Retired Keeper Thompson had seen a lot of powerful storms in his twenty years of service, but this one would top them all.

Prudence Island Lighthouse after 1938 Hurricane
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
At some point, a tidal wave generated by the storm moved up Narragansett Bay, devouring everything in its path. The keeper’s house was smashed to pieces in an instant, although the stone lighthouse tower remained standing. The condition of the tower after the hurricane can be seen in the photograph at right. Keeper Gustavus happened to catch a wave going in the right direction, and was pulled to safety by an island resident standing on the shore. Horrified onlookers watched as his wife and son were swept away, holding on to a piece of the dwelling. The three lighthouse guests were nowhere to be seen, but their bodies were found washed up on the island about a week later. The body of Keeper Gustavus’wife was later found on a beach near Newport, while his son’s body was never recovered. Altogether, five lives were lost that day at the lighthouse.

Throughout Rhode Island, about 400 people were killed by the hurricane, including the keeper at the cast-iron Whale Rock Lighthouse at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, which was completely washed away.

Immediately after the hurricane, Milton Chase, general manager of the Homestead Utility Company, went to the damaged tower at Prudence Island and installed an electric light as an emergency temporary navigational aid. There had previously been no electric power at the station. Chase received a letter of commendation for his action. It was decided not to rebuild the keeper’s dwelling after the hurricane and tragedy. Several island residents looked after the light until it was automated several years later.

In an interview years later, George Gustavus said that the others in the house were “caught like rats in a trap” in the face of the record-high seas and winds. Gustavus had joined the Lighthouse Service in 1910, serving at Tarpaulin Cove Light on Naushon Island, Eastern Point Light, Thatcher Island off Cape Ann, and Cuttyhunk Island (all in Massachusetts) before arriving at Prudence Island. After the hurricane and the death of his first wife and son, Gustavus resumed his career in 1939, becoming keeper at Nobska Light on Cape Cod. He joined the Coast Guard in 1943 and finished his career at Chatham Light, retiring in 1945. He remarried in 1943 and had a number of children and grandchildren.

At some point, an old deed to the lighthouse was discovered that stipulated that the lighthouse and grounds be donated to President Millard Fillmore. Furthermore, ownership of the lighthouse was to be handed down to each successive U.S. President.

Today, the Prudence Island Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation. In 2000, the Coast Guard gave the American Lighthouse Foundation a twenty-year contract to take care of the light, however, after vociferous protests the caretaker contract was transferred to a local group, the Prudence Island Conservancy, in August of 2001. Conservancy members repaired the tower’s foundation and applied a new coat of paint in 2002.

References

  1. America’s Atlantic Coast Lighthouses, Kenneth Kochel, 1996.
  2. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.

Location: Located on Sandy Point on the east side of Prudence Island.
Latitude: 41.60592
Longitude: -71.30353

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


Travel Instructions: Prudence island can be reached via the Bristol - Prudence Island Ferry. Call (401) 253-9808 for the ferry schedule. From the ferry landing on Prudence Island, go south on Narragansett Avenue for just under a mile then turn left onto Landing Lane, where you will find the lighthouse. A distant view of the lighthouse can be had from across the bay adjacent to the Green Animals Topiary Gardens.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and leased to Prudence Conservancy. Grounds open, tower closed.

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