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 Watch Hill, RI    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Interior open or museum on site.
Description: Watch Hill Lighthouse sits atop a bluff on the north side of the eastern entrance to Fishers Island Sound. According to local legend, Watch Hill received its name during King George's War (1744-48), when a watchtower and light were established on what was then known as Bear Hill. The purpose of the light was not to serve ships in the Sound but rather to warn local residents of a naval attack. The watchtower continued to be used in the 1750s during the French and Indian Wars to track French pirates that were molesting local fishermen and merchant ships. When a pirate ship was spotted, a signal was sent out to local mariners - a smoke signal during the day, and a large bonfire at night. This tower was apparently destroyed during a storm in 1781.

Many mariners petitioned for a replacement for the lost tower, although some felt that putting a lighthouse on Little Gull Island was more critical. Some kind of navigational warning was obviously needed, as demonstrated by the number of recorded shipwrecks on the dangerous reefs around Watch Hill. By the early 1790s, Congress was discussing the necessity for a permanent lighthouse on Watch Hill, but it wasn't until 1806 that Congress appropriated $6,000 for the lighthouse and President Thomas Jefferson signed the order authorizing the project.

The government surveyed local maritime interests to determine the requirements of the new light. The findings indicated that a first-class light was unnecessary as no transatlantic ship traffic passed Watch Hill, but a small light would benefit local and coastal traffic.

As the light neared completion, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin wrote a letter to the superintendent of lights for Rhode Island and asked that Jonathan Nash of Westerly, Rhode Island, be notified of his appointment as keeper of the new light at an annual salary of $200. Keeper Nash served at Watch Hill Lighthouse for twenty-seven years and recorded forty-five shipwrecks during that time.

Four acres of land for the lighthouse were purchased for $500 from George and Thankful Foster, and in 1808, the thirty-five-foot-tall, wood-framed tower, Rhode Island's second lighthouse, went into operation. In 1838, the lighting apparatus in the lantern room consisted of ten sets of lamps and reflectors arranged on iron frames in two equal clusters. The lamps rotated by means of a large weight suspended in the tower. As the weight dropped, it energized a clockwork mechanism, which rotated the iron frames holding the lamps. This was a fairly standard apparatus for the time, but had to be carefully watched for if the light stopped revolving, mariners might mistake it for the fixed light at Stonington Lighthouse, only two and a half miles to the northwest.

Aerial view of Watch Hill Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
By the 1850s, the wood in both the tower and the keeper's dwelling was rotten, and the structures were falling apart. The sea had also eaten away at the surrounding land until the tower was dangerously close to falling over. As neither structure was deemed worth the cost of repairs, $8,300 was obtained in 1854 for constructing a new lighthouse and keeper's dwelling and repairing the protecting seawall. The present Watch Hill Lighthouse, located about fifty feet northwest of the first lighthouse, was completed in 1856 as part of a building frenzy that started after the Lighthouse Board took charge of all navigational aids in the United States.

Built of granite blocks with a brick lined interior, the ten-foot-square tower stands forty-five feet tall and is attached to the southeast corner of the two-story, brick keeper's dwelling. As built, the residence had three bedrooms, a sitting room, dining room, kitchen, maintenance room, and a cellar.

The increased height of the new tower, coupled with the fact that it was built on higher ground than its predecessor, meant that the light from Watch Hill could now be seen from a much farther distance. Originally, the new tower exhibited a fixed white light from a fourth-order Fresnel lens. But by the early twentieth century, mariners were becoming confused by the competition from bright street lights and other signs of electrified civilization, so the lens was replaced with a revolving optic displaying a flashing white light every fifteen seconds.

After the new lighthouse was completed, the surrounding seawall was deemed inadequate at preventing further erosion of the site. Construction of a new seawall that extended below low water and was protected by enrockment at its base was recommended, and $10,000 for this project was appropriated in 1856.

The presence of the improved Watch Hill Lighthouse still couldn't prevent all maritime disasters in the area, especially in times of fog. On June 28, 1918, the freighter Onondaga ran aground on Watch Hill Reef in heavy fog, and sank in fifty feet of water. Two months later, the fishing steamer George Hudson, loaded with one thousand barrels of menhaden, hit the reef in thick fog and sank. Fortunately, in both instances, all members of the crew were able to escape onto lifeboats before the vessels went down.

The Watch Hill Lighthouse could not have prevented the two worst maritime disasters to occur in the area. On the night of August 30, 1872, the schooner Nettie Cushing collided with the much larger passenger steamer Metis. The bow of the Nettie Cushing cut deep into the Metis, inflicting a fatal wound. Eighty-five people were rescued from the sinking vessel by boats that rushed to the scene, but sixty-seven souls perished in the storm-tossed sea. The circumstances of this tragic loss of life were repeated on the night of February 11, 1907, when the three-masted schooner Harry Knowlton collided with the passenger steamer Larchmont. Captain George McVey of the Larchmont gave the following account of the incident:

We left Providence at 7 o'clock. A brisk northwest wind was blowing, and we were off Watch Hill at about 11 o'clock. I had gone below to look over the passengers and freight, leaving a good pilot and quartermaster in the pilot house. I returned to the pilot house, passing through there on my way to my room. Everything was O. K. in the pilot house as I stepped into my room and prepared to retire for the night. Suddenly I heard the pilot blowing danger, and I hurried into the pilot house. There was a schooner on the port and her crew seemed to have lost control of her. Without warning she luffed up and before we had an opportunity to do a thing headed for us. The quartermaster and pilot put the wheel hard aport, but the schooner was sailing along under a heavy breeze, and in a moment she had crashed into our port side, directly opposite the smokestack.

The turbulent waters soon separated the two vessels, which both began taking on water. The schooner, with its crew manning her pumps, was able to stay afloat until it reached a point a few miles west of Watch Hill, where the crew abandoned ship and rowed ashore in a lifeboat. Those aboard the steamer were not as fortunate. Most passengers had retired for the evening, and so those who were able to reach the lifeboats were not properly clothed to face the freezing temperatures. Of the estimated 157 passengers and crew on the steamship, only nineteen survived, and many of these were severely frostbitten and had to have fingers, hands and even limbs amputated.

The Great New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938 caught many people in the Watch Hill area by total surprise. New England hadn't suffered a head-on hurricane since 1815, and there was virtually no warning of this one. Rising water covered the access road to the station, cutting off any hope of escaping to higher ground, so the keepers and their families had to rely on the sturdy brick walls of the dwelling for protection. At the height of the storm, waves broke over the top of the tower, smashing the windows in the lantern and allowing seawater into the tower. The surrounding sea wall was destroyed, and the foundation of the fog signal building was critically undermined. Though there were casualties in nearby Westerly, everyone at the lighthouse survived without injury, and the station was back in operation within a few weeks.

The Watch Hill Lighthouse was automated in 1986, when its Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern beacon. The buildings at the station are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places and are leased to the Watch Hill Lightkeepers Association, which has established an endowment for the preservation of the property.

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Capsule Histories of Some Local Islands and Light Houses in the Eastern Part of L.I. Sound, Benjamin Rathbun, 2001.
  3. America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses, Kenneth Kochel, 1996.
  4. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.

Location: Located at Watch Hill Point, near the westernmost point in Rhode Island.
Latitude: 41.30391
Longitude: -71.8586

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


Travel Instructions: From Westerly, take Route 1-A to Watch Hill, and turn west on Watch Hill Road. After one-and-a-half miles on Watch Hill Road turn left on Westerly Road. From Westerly Road turn left to Bluff Avenue, followed by a right onto Larkin and then a quick left on Lighthouse Road. For some reason, the large parking lot near the lighthouse is limited to handicapped parking so you must park in town and walk to the lighthouse.

A museum in the oil house, which features a fourth-order Fresnel lens formerly used in the tower, is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. during July and August.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and maintained by maintained by Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association. Grounds open, dwelling/tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Watch Hill Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
We first visited this lighthouse on a cold, windy day in January. The ocean was whipped up, which made trying to photograph the lighthouse from the rocky area between the station's fence and the water a risky proposition. Fortunately, the residents arrived during our visit, and kindly let us enter the grounds to snap a picture or two from a less precarious position. If you look closely, you can see the flakes of snow that were falling that day.
Marilyn writes:
A January visit to this light is probably not the preferential time as it was amazingly cold and windy. Having said that, this light is in such an incredible location that even freezing sleet is worth it.

See our List of Lighthouses in Rhode Island

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Rich Schoeller, used by permission.