Block Island, a popular vacation
spot sometimes called the "Bermuda of the North," has been known by
mariners for its dangerous shoals and frequent fog. Between 1819 and
1838, 59 vessels were wrecked on or near the island.
Block Island North Light was established to mark the entrances
to Block Island Sound and Long Island Sound, as well as to warn
mariners away from dangerous Sandy Point, extending a mile or so from
the island. The first lighthouse built here in 1829 consisted of two
lights on opposite ends of a building. Two years later, the schooner Warrior
was wrecked at Sandy Point in a storm. Twenty-one people died and seven
of them were buried on Block Island.
The first building was soon threatened by the ocean, and
in 1837 a new lighthouse was built farther inland. Again, two lights
were erected at either end of a dwelling. The lights were considered
too dim, and mariners complained that they looked like a single light
from more than three miles. Another structure was built in 1857, but
this one was soon overcome by the shifting sands.
The fourth lighthouse at Sandy Point was built by a Fall
River contractor at a cost of $15,000, 700 yards from the end of the
point. It went into service on September 14, 1868.
Hiram Ball had been the keeper of the previous light for
six years; he remained at the station for another 30 years.
The lighthouse is a handsome granite dwelling with an
iron tower. The building is very similar to several other lighthouses
built about the same time, including Connecticut's Great Captain Island
Light, Sheffield Island Light and Morgan Point Light, and New York's
Field Point Light.
The new lighthouse received a fourth-order Fresnel lens,
exhibiting a fixed white light visible for 13 1/2 miles. The light was
later changed to an occulting light, and still later to a flashing
In August 1946, Frank Perry, an architect and
photographer from Providence, Rhode Island, visited Block Island to
take some photographs for a book. After walking along the sandy beach
to the North Light, he returned to his taxi and saw a man and a woman
on bicycles fitted with carriers loaded with groceries.
Perry talked to the couple and found out the man was the Coast Guard
keeper at the North Light. They were about to leave the bicycles at a
friend's house and walk a mile on the beach to the lighthouse, carrying
their heavy groceries.
Perry felt that this situation was so deplorable that he
described it in a letter to President Harry S. Truman. "These people
are in the employ of the U.S. Government," he wrote, "rendering a
faithful service in caring for an important light and it seems to me
that they are deserving of consideration. In other words they should be
furnished means of transportation, a jeep, for example..." Perry didn't
receive an answer from the President, but the matter was referred to
the Coast Guard and the Block Island North Light Station soon had a
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Block Island North Light was automated in 1956. Donald Lawson
of Boston was the last Coast Guard keeper at the station, where he
lived with his wife Margaret, a registered nurse, and their
one-year-old son, Ricky. In their last winter at the station, heavy
snow left the Lawsons stranded and supplies had to be delivered by
boat. Donald Lawson enjoyed the fishing and swimming at the station,
but wasn't too fond of having to crank the clockwork mechanism that
turned the lens, a ritual that had to be repeated every four hours each
The lighthouse was deactivated in 1973. A skeleton tower a
short distance away replaced "Old Granitesides."
In 1973 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service acquired
Block Island North Light and 28 surrounding acres. It became a wildlife
refuge, home to many species of birds. Little attention was paid to the
lighthouse, which was the scene of much vandalism. In 1984 the Fish and
Wildlife Service sold the lighthouse and two acres of land to the Town
of New Shoreham for $1.
Much renovation was completed in the next few years, and
the North Light Commission convinced the Coast Guard to move the optic
from the skeleton tower back into the lighthouse.
On August 5, 1989, the lighthouse was relighted, and in
1993 the restored first floor was opened as a museum.
lighthouse has undergone extensive renovation during the last few years
under the tireless stewardship of North Light Commission Chair Rob
Gilpin. “It started as a way to give back to the community,” he told
the Block Island Times.
“I enjoy it or obviously I wouldn’t do it. It just gets frustrating
sometimes.” North Light Commission co-Chairman Gilbert Plumb, who is in
has also done a great deal of work to gain support for the
inspection in 2001 showed that the lighthouse needed major work.
The iron tower had badly deteriorated, especially where it met the rest
of the building. The cost of the restoration of the tower and roof is
The town was awarded $400,000 in June 2002 from the
federal Transportation Enhancement Program, and a $100,000 State
Preservation Grant was announced on December 6, 2006. Another $100,000
was awarded by the town, and $95,000 in donations to the North Light
Association were applied to the project.
The navigational light in
In anticipation of restoration, the navigational light
was relocated from the lighthouse to a small tower to the north in 2003.
June 2008, the lantern was removed from the building and transported to
Georgetown Ironworks in Massachusetts for a complete overhaul. After
the work on the building and the lantern was completed, the lantern was
returned to its home in the summer of 2009.
fourth-order Fresnel lens, on display for years in the interpretive
center, has been returned to the lighthouse's lantern room. A ceremony
to relight the North Light as a private aid to navigation took place on
Saturday, October 23, 2010.
Below is a video showing some of the restoration work carried
out by Georgetown Ironworks.
December 2010, the American Institute of Architects, Rhode Island
Chapter, conferred an Honor Award for Restoration to the town, the
North Light Commission, and Walter Sedovic Architects. The jury
stated that “the restoration required tireless effort from the entire
Keepers: William A. Weeden
(sometimes identified as Edward Weeden) (1829-1839); Simeon Babcock
(1839-1841 and 1845-1849); Edward Mott II (1841-1845 and 1849-1853);
Enoch Rose, Jr. (1853-1858); Nicholas Littlefield (1858-1861); Hiram D.
Ball (1861-1891); Elam Littlefield (1891-1923); John F. Anderson
(1923-1926); Ezra B. Dunn (1926-1938); Howard B. Beebe (1938-1945);
John Lee, Jr. (1945-1952); William H. McAffee (1952-1955); Donald M.
Lawson (Coast Guard, 1955-1956).