Quite a few integral lighthouses were built during the early 1800s, but when the Lighthouse Board took over lighthouse administration in the 1850s, it found many of these lights to be inadequate for their purpose, in poor condition, or both. Most of these integral lighthouses were torn down and replaced, usually with taller towers. Only five integral lighthouses remain from the time of Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury and supervisor of U.S. lighthouses from 1820 to 1852. Besides Poplar Point, the surviving integral lighthouses are Point Lookout Lighthouse and Fishing Battery Lighthouse, both in Maryland, Selkirk Lighthouse on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in New York, and East Point Lighthouse in New Jersey. All of these have gone through long periods of neglect except for Poplar Point Lighthouse, which has been continuously occupied and well preserved throughout its history.
The octagonal tower was built of wood and attached to the eastern gable of a one-story, rubblestone keeper’s dwelling. Access to the tower, whose interior was initially left unfinished with its studs exposed, was through a small, windowless bedroom, which during the winter, was unlivable as its unlined walls freely admitted cold and snow.
Poplar Point’s first keeper was Samuel Thomas, Jr., who received his appointment in November of 1831 at an annual salary of $350. Lieutenant George M. Bache included the following details on Poplar Point Lighthouse in an 1838 report:
The light is shown from a wooden tower placed over the keeper’s dwelling and is elevated forty-eight feet above high-water mark.
The lighting apparatus consists of eight lamps with concave reflectors, so disposed around two circular rims or hoops as to throw their light over the portion of the bay and harbor included between the S.E. by E. and N.W. by W. points.
The lamps are in good order. The reflectors average in weight nearly three pounds; their diameters are 14 1/2 inches. A portion of the silver has been rubbed from their concave surface at the upper hole, through which the glass tube should pass; they are otherwise in good condition.
The dwelling-house, of stone, built in 1831, is in good repair, and the establishment appears to be well kept.
It seems Poplar Point Lighthouse did little to help vessels coming through Narragansett Bay’s West Passage, as it was located within a shallow bay, two miles from the middle of the channel. The lighthouse did, however, serve as an entrance light for Wickford Harbor, but few ships would attempt to enter Wickford Harbor after dark, instead waiting for daylight at the well-protected anchorage between Dutch and Conanicut Islands.
Poplar Point Lighthouse had a short life. In 1880, Congress appropriated $45,000 for a lighthouse on Old Gay Rock at the mouth of Wickford Harbor, just offshore from Poplar Point. When Wickford Harbor Lighthouse was activated on November 1, 1882, Poplar Point Lighthouse was discontinued. Keeper Henry F. Sherman, who had been serving at Poplar Point since 1874, was transferred to Wickford Harbor Lighthouse, where his annual salary remained $480. Wickford Harbor Lighthouse was torn down in 1930 and replaced by a metal tower. A modern beacon can still be seen on the lighthouse’s original pier today.
After Poplar Point was discontinued, the land and buildings were sold at auction to Albert R. Sherman of Pawtuxet, Rhode Island for $4,000 on October 15, 1894. Two wings have been added to the lighthouse, creating a rambling structure laid out in the shape of a Y. The exterior of the stone keeper’s dwelling is now covered in shingles, and a large bow window has been placed on the north gable of the lighthouse to provide a commanding view of Wickford Harbor from the first floor.
The property has been resold a number of times over the years, and has been used as both a summer home and a year-round residence. A plaque embedded in a stone in the middle of the driveway tells of the role Poplar Point played in the Revolutionary War, long before the construction of its lighthouse: “On this point during the Revolution stood a cannon protecting Updike’s Newton now Wickford against enemy excursions on the main. It was manned by the Newton rangers, whose charter was granted April 17, 1777.”
Though Poplar Point Lighthouse was the ninth lighthouse built in Rhode Island, it is now the oldest lighthouse in the state still on its original site. The historic Poplar Point Lighthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2011, the lighthouse residence, which includes a swimming pool, was on the market for $6.45 million.
Head Keepers: Samuel Thomas, Jr. (1831 – 1849), James Reynolds (1849 – 1854), Abram B. Green (1854 – 1859), Samuel A. Spink (1859 – 1861), John Hull (1861 – 1874), Henry F. Sherman (1874 – 1885), Nathaniel Dodge (1885 – 1893), Edmund (Edward) Andrews (1893 – 1930).