Watch Hill, a village of
Westerly, Rhode Island, is a quaint resort area with an old carousel
and many shops and stately mansions. Clark Gable, Groucho Marx, Henry
Ford, and Douglas Fairbanks were among those who vacationed here.
A watchtower and a simple beacon were first established
at Watch Hill by the Rhode Island colonial government around 1745,
giving the area its name, and earlier the point may have been used as a
lookout by the Narragansett Indians. The watchtower and beacon were
destroyed in a 1781 storm.
Collection of Stereoscopic Views, Photography Collection, Miriam &
Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints & Photographs, The New York
Discussion of a lighthouse to mark the eastern entrance
to Fishers Island Sound, and to warn mariners of a dangerous reef
southwest of Watch Hill, began in 1793. An act to build the lighthouse
was signed in 1806 by President Thomas Jefferson. The government
purchased four acres of land for $500 from George and Thankful Foster,
and the lighthouse, Rhode Island's second after Beavertail, was
completed in early 1808.
The first Watch Hill Light was a 35-foot round wooden
tower with ten whale oil lamps and parabolic reflectors. In 1827 the
light was made a rotating one in an effort to differentiate it from the
light at Stonington, Connecticut. An 1837 survey by E. Blunt and G.W.
Blunt reported, "The light at Watch Hill is a very bad one, the lamps
are bad, the reflectors too small... Also the machinery for this light
is so bad that... it sometimes requires being turned by hand."
The first keeper, Jonathan Nash, served 27 years at
Watch Hill, losing his job in 1834 for political reasons. Nash, whose
initial salary was $200 per year, recorded 45 vessels wrecked in the
vicinity during his years as keeper. Jonathan Nash and his son-in-law
later built the first hotel at Watch Hill.
The first tower served until 1855, when erosion
threatened it and neccessitated the building of a new tower farther
back from the edge of the bluff. The new 45-foot square granite tower,
lined with brick, was fitted with a fourth order Fresnel lens.
It was first lighted on February 1, 1856, and exhibited
a fixed white light. A two story brick keeper's house, attached to the
tower, was built the same year, and a granite sea wall was built around
the perimeter of the lighthouse property.
|One of the worst maritime disasters
in the vicinity of Watch Hill was the wreck of the steamer Metis
in 1872. The ship, carrying 160 people to Providence, collided with a
schooner. At first it was not believed that the damage was bad enough
to prevent the vessel from continuing, but about a mile from Watch Hill
the Metis began to sink fast. Local residents managed to save
33 people, but the other 130 on board perished. A few years later a U.S.
Life Saving Service Station was established at Watch Hill,
close to the lighthouse. The station was abandoned in the 1940s and was
destroyed in 1963.
In 1879, Sally Ann Crandall became the first woman to
keep the light at Watch Hill, taking over for her husband following his
death. Keeper Crandall's salary was $500 per year. Fanny K. Sckuyler
became the second woman keeper when she took over for Sally Ann
Crandall in 1888.
In 1907 one of the most famous of all New England
shipping disasters occurred four miles southwest of Watch Hill Light
when the steamer Larchmont collided with a schooner in a
Close to 200 people died in this disaster.
This is a rare
example of a square lighthouse with a round stairway.
Circa 1905. Library
of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, 5240
There was severe damage at the lighthouse during the
hurricane of September 21, 1938, the worst storm in New England's
recorded history. Many people died in the Westerly area during the
storm. The keeper reported that waves broke over the top of the
lighthouse, smashing the lantern glass, damaging the lamp and sending
seawater into the tower.
Keeper Lawrence Congdon and Assistant Keeper Richard
Fricke weathered the storm, but it took a few weeks to get Watch Hill
Light operating again.
A hurricane named Carol barreled up the coast and struck
Rhode Island on August 31, 1954. Bill Mack, assistant keeper for the
Coast Guard at the time, recalls that when the hurricane hit during the
morning of August 31, he went to the fog signal building to get the
Waves were throwing stones "the size of baseballs" into
the building, breaking the windows. Mack retreated to the keeper's
house and remained there for the duration of the storm.
The waves were so high that virtually nothing could be
seen from the house's east facing windows. When the eye of the
hurricane passed over, says Bill's wife, Carol, it looked like there
was a riptide in the middle of the backyard.
As had happened in 1938, Watch Hill Point became an
island through much of the hurricane. The road to the point was badly
torn up and the east bank near the lighthouse was eaten away,
practically undermining the fog signal building. All in all, about
$125,000 worth of damage was sustained at the light station. The Macks
left Watch Hill shortly after the hurricane, in October 1954.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
This photo of Carol and Bill
Mack, about to leave the lighthouse for church with baby daughter
Kathy, was taken by a visiting tourist.
Carol and Bill Mack with their
daughter, Kathy, during a visit to Watch Hill Light Station in July 2004
William Ivan Clark was in charge beginning in 1959. At
the time of his death in 1970, Clark was considered one of the last
civilian lighthouse keepers in the United States.
In early January 1962, Clark was notified by a crewman
at the nearby Coast Guard station that a ship had landed in the light
station’s “front yard.” The huge Norwegian freighter Leif Viking had run aground on
Gangway Rock, about 250 yards from the station.
A Coast Guard buoy tender helped to aid the vessel,
which remained stranded for nine days before a tug towed it to New York
City. The freighter was carrying 700 tons of paper.
Keeper William I. Clark, left, and Coast Guardsman John Carter.
Courtesy of John Carter.
The light was automated in 1986
and the Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern optic. After automation
the lighthouse and other buildings were leased to the Watch Hill
Lightkeepers Association. The association has established an endowment
fund for the upkeep of the station.
A. Wilk, Sr., was the Coast Guard's officer in charge at the station
from 1969 to 1974. His daughter, Rosemarie Kingsbury, wrote the
following in 2007:
have recounted the stories to my children of how my brothers and I
would walk up that metal spiral staircase, open the hatch, and on cold
days or nights turn on the space heater, then wind the weight up to the
top to keep the light going (the alarm was never to go off and if it
ever did everyone who heard it immediately raced to the tower to wind
the light). How we would go into the generator room to turn on the fog
horn, run on the rocks, and give tours of the light to tourists.
shown them how waves would break over the sea wall and run to the other
side of the road on that narrow strip of land just outside the gate,
where Mr. Butler kept his boat and small dock, trapping us at the
Light. I told them of how my father put an intercom at the gate and how
he used it to scare my mother one evening (his idea but we all
laughed); of my father and a relief watchman putting up the storm
warning flags and the relief watchman being lifted off the ground by
the wind; of how the eye of an almost hurricane come right over the
point and we were able to go outside and look up; and much more.
all the places that we have lived, New Orleans, Mobile, Galveston,
Chicopee, Buffalo, and more, the Watch Hill Lighthouse is the only
place that I get homesick for. It is the one with the most memories and
the place I love to visit the most.
This fourth-order lens from Watch
Hill Light is on exhibit along with the mechanism that turned it.
A small museum in one of the
station's buildings is open limited hours in the summer. Donations for
the lighthouse's preservation are welcomed. Watch Hill Light continues
to serve as an active aid to navigation.
For more information contact:
Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association
- 14 Lighthouse Road
- Watch Hill, RI 02891
- You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Rhode
Island by Jeremy D'Entremont.
- Keepers: (This
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 email@example.com.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
- Jonathan Nash (1808-1833); Enoch Vose (1833-1841); Gilbert
Pendleton (1841-1847); Daniel Babcock (1847-1849); Ethan Pendelton
(1849-1853); Nelson Brown (1853-1861); Daniel Larkin (1861-1868); Jared
S. Crandall (1868-1879, died in service); Sally Ann Crandall
(1879-1888); Fanny K.Sckuyler (1888-1890); Joseph T. Fowler
(1890-1895); Julius B. Young (1895-1910); Henry Burkhart (1910-1918);
Thomas Murphy (1st asst., 1910-1914); James Gregory (1st asst.,
1914-1918, head keeper 1918-1921); Sylvester Kenzia (1st asst.,
1919-1923); John F. Anderson (1922-1924); Amos Broadmeadow (c. 1920s);
Carl F. Anderson (1st asst., 1925-1931); Lawrence Congdon (March 1,
1924-1941); Frank Laftib (1st assistant 1931-1935); Richard Frick,
assistant (1935-1941); Ernest A. Sampson (1944-1947); William H. Mack
(Coast Guard, 1953-1954); Paul Baptiste (Coast Guard, 1955); William
Ivan Clark (1959-1970); John Anthony Wilk (Coast Guard, 1969-1974);
Jerry Pie (Coast Guard, c. 1978); Keith Hamlin (Coast Guard assistant,
c. 1978); Rusty Merritt (Coast Guard, 1984-1986), Tony Methot (Coast
A view from the top