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 north side. As low-lying Sandy Point was prone to flooding during storms, an elevated plank walkway linked the dwelling to the tower.
Prudence Island Lighthouse’s original Winslow Lewis light apparatus, consisting of six lamps and an equal number of fourteen-inch reflectors, was replaced in 1855 by a fifth-order Fresnel lens that also produced a fixed white light. On August 10, 1884, a fog bell, tolled by an automatic striking mechanism, was established at the station. In 1924, the light’s characteristic was changed to flashing white, with a weight-activated rotating mechanism.
A newspaper story in March 1856 noted that a two-and-a-half-pound wild duck had dashed through the lantern room glass on Prudence Island, furnishing Keeper Edward Spooner with Sunday dinner. Spooner was the third keeper of the lighthouse, arriving in 1855 after short terms of service by Peleg Sherman, the first keeper, and Henry Dimond.
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 who had twice been awarded the efficiency flag for having the model station in the district, owned a cottage near the lighthouse, but felt the keeper’s dwelling was the place to be in a storm. Two other guests, a James and Ellen 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.
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 the keeper’s 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 Mabel was later found on a beach near Newport, while the body of his thirteen-year-old son Edward was never recovered. Altogether, five lives were lost that day at the lighthouse, and an additional three people on Prudence Island perished. Two of the Gustavus children had taken the ferry to school that day and were unable to return to the island, while the other seven Gustav were grown and had left home.
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.
The keeper’s dwelling was not rebuilt after the hurricane. Rather, the light was electrified the following year, and the revolving lens was replaced by a fixed, fourth-order lens, further simplifying the task of caring for the light. A few island residents looked after the light until it was automated in 1961. At that time, a diaphragm horn was mounted on the lantern room’s deck to replace the station’s fog bell.
In an interview years later, George Gustavus said that his family and houseguests were “caught like rats in a trap” in the face of the record-high seas and winds. “We all rushed up the stairs, [but] when the house broke up we were thrown in the rushing water,” Gustavus said. Keeper Gustavus had joined the Lighthouse Service in 1910, serving at Tarpaulin Cove Light on Naushon Island, Nobska Point, Eastern Point, Thatcher Island off Cape Ann, Cuttyhunk Island, Bird Island, and Dumpling Rock (all in Massachusetts), before arriving at Prudence Island in 1937. After the hurricane and the death of his wife and son, Gustavus resumed his career in 1939, becoming keeper at Nobska Light on Cape Cod. Keeper Gustavus joined the Coast Guard and remarried in 1943. He finished his career at Chatham Lighthouse, retiring in 1945.
Prudence Island Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation, with a modern beacon producing a green flash every six seconds. 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 2001. Conservancy members repaired the tower’s foundation and applied a new coat of paint in 2002.