Wickford's cozy, protected
harbor, off the west side of Narragansett Bay, developed as a shipping
point for goods from the area's large plantations. Foreign trade from
Wickford also blossomed, before the Revolution and again in the early
1800s. The harbor's wharves were thick with sloops and schooners, many
of them built at local shipyards.
Congress appropriated $3,000 on March 3, 1831, for a
light at the entrance to Wickford Harbor. A site on the south side of
the harbor entrance was selected, and the land was purchased from
Thomas Albro for $300.
specifications called for a one-story stone dwelling, 40 feet by 20
feet, with a cellar. The house was to be divided into two rooms, with a
chimney in the middle and a fireplace in each room. A porch or kitchen
was to be attached to the house.
An octagonal wooden lighthouse tower, 10 feet in diameter and
feet above the ridge of the house, was to be erected at one end of the
building. It was to be topped by a wooden deck, covered with copper,
and an octagonal iron lantern.
Charles Allen was hired to build the lighthouse at a cost of $1,889,
and it was completed before the end of the year. Winslow Lewis
furnished the original lighting apparatus, consisting of eight lamps
and eight 14-inch reflectors, for $375. A local man named John Stevens
supervised the construction of the lighthouse, and he reported on
Lewis’s visit in a letter dated October 13, 1831. Stevens complained
that the apparatus installed by Lewis was incomplete. Lewis told the
workers that the missing parts were “not in his contract.”
light went into service on November 1, 1831, with the focal plane of
the fixed white light 48 feet above the water. Samuel Thomas, Jr. was
appointed as first keeper at a yearly salary of $350. He had been
recommended for the position by a Judge Sanford, who described him as
“an honest and capable man” who had always been “a firm Republican of
the Jefferson school.” Thomas remained until 1849, when James Reynolds
Lt. George M. Bache examined the lighthouse for his important survey of
1838. Bache pointed out that the light wasn't needed for navigation in
Narragansett Bay. "Its utility, therefore," he wrote, "may be very
nearly measured by the service it renders the trade of North Kingstown
or Wickford." Bache reported that in 1838 there were 15 vessels engaged
in trade belonging to the port of North Kingstown, and five vessels
engaged in the cod fishery. Bache stopped just short of recommending
that the light be discontinued:
I have no means of determining the average number of
nightly arrivals at and departures from this port, throughout the year;
but . . . their number would not be great. None but those very well
acquainted with the navigation would venture into Wickford at night, in
preference to remaining at the excellent anchorage in its neighborhood,
between Conanicut and Dutch Islands.
reported the lamps in good order and the dwelling in good repair. An
1850 inspection praised Keeper James Reynolds (“Keeper is a new one,
and I think a pretty good one”), who had arrived a year earlier, but
found that the house needed whitewashing. In 1855, a sixth-order
steamer lens and Argand oil lamp replaced the earlier multiple lamps
The 1868 annual report of the Lighthouse
Board recommended the installation of a new lantern, the lining of the
lighthouse tower, and several other improvements. Entrance to the tower
was through a bedroom that had no window; it was recommended that a
dormer window be added. On July 15, 1870, Congress appropriated $12,300
for repairs at four lighthouses, including Poplar Point. The
improvements were implemented by the time the annual report of 1871 was
For many years, ferry sloops provided the only public
water transportation from Wickford to Newport, and the service was
irregular at best. But in 1870, the Wickford Railroad and Steamboat
Company began regular passenger ferry service to Newport, connecting
with a railroad line from New York City to Wickford.
The foot of Steamboat Avenue, a short distance from the
lighthouse, was the terminus for the trains and the ferry.
By 1880, the Lighthouse Board decided that a light located 200
yards offshore from Poplar Point, at Old Gay Rock, would better serve
the ferries and other traffic. With the establishment of the new
Wickford Harbor Lighthouse on November 1, 1882, the old light at Poplar
Point was permanently darkened as an aid to navigation. On October 15,
1894, the government sold Poplar Point Lighthouse at public auction.
The buyer was Albert Sherman at a high bid of $3,944.67.
The owner of the lighthouse in 1932 was Edith M. Grant.
According to an article by John W. Hawkins in the Providence Journal,
Grant was the “first to realize the possibilities of the 100-year-old
landmark and develop them to the full.” A large addition had been built
onto the building a few years earlier under Ms. Grant’s direction,
designed by Franklin Eddy of Providence. The entire building took the
form of a “Y,” with the lighthouse tower at the end of the right wing.
The left wing contained the main kitchen and a summer kitchen, and
terminated at a garage.
Elmer and Virginia Shippee bought the property in 1966.
The Shippees' son, Russell, and his wife, Cathy, have lived in the
lighthouse since 1987. The Shippees have extensively renovated the
building since 1987, and it's a process that never truly ends.
The property is exposed to extremely harsh conditions,
especially in winter. One storm took the paint right off the garage, as
if it had been sandblasted.
But the rewards have been many. "Look at it here," says
Cathy Shippee. "It's absolutely beautiful. It's a view that constantly
changes, month to month, day to day, hour to hour. The activity in the
summer is ongoing-it's like a picture show. It's not boring, let me
tell you!" The Shippees' three children, now grown, love returning to
their lighthouse home. "It's a great place to bring up children," Cathy
Cathy and Russell Shippee
- This is Rhode Island's oldest unrebuilt lighthouse in its
original location. The lighthouse tower itself is also the oldest
wooden lighthouse in the nation. (Plymouth Light in Massachusetts is
the oldest free-standing wooden tower.) A good view of the lighthouse
is available from a breakwater across Wickford Harbor at Sauga Point.
PROPERTY IS FOR SALE (as of January 24, 2010). See these sites for
You can read much more about
this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Rhode Island by
The view from the lantern room
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does
so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and
Samuel Thomas, Jr. (1831-1849), James Reynolds (1849-1854), Abram B.
Green (1854-1859), Samuel A. Spinks (1859-1861), John Hull (1861-1874),
Henry F. Sherman (1874-1882)