Shining a Light Into the Past
The North Lighthouse on Block Island
Block Island, in itself, retains such a remote quality that one can hardly imagine that there can be something even more remote on the island. That being said, the North Lighthouse is just that. If you go to the most remote spot on the island, and if you don’t mind trudging through soft sand for about 20 minutes, you can capture another glimpse into the island’s history.
Walking to the lighthouse to learn about its history offers the traveler a magnificent view of the ocean and its wealth of beauty. The rock-stewn shoreline provides the traveler with lots of challenges. Twisted remains of ocean debris and seaweed sculptures are just a few of the things you will see as you walk the shoreline. The sand is silky smooth, pouring through your sandals and flip-flops, providing a shell or two stuck between your toes. You can hear the rushing of the tide into the shore, soft whispers that lap up the shoreline, bringing more sand back to the sandy depths of the ocean. A horn blast or two coming from a passing ship can be heard in the background, as you travel closer and closer to the lighthouse.
Upon arriving at the lighthouse, you witness a majestic granite building, with a wraparound walkway and benches for the travelers to rest their weary feet. There are maps available to all, showing trails through the salty marshes and where to view the light that guides the ships into Block Island. The building is now a museum, with a scent of mustiness as approriate for the the age of the building. Artifacts, souvenirs, and a complete history of the North Light, can be found in the many rooms of the building.
The North lighthouse was built to mark the entrances from Long Island Sound into Block Island Sound and it also alerted shipping vessels about the sandy point that jutted into the sea. The first lighthouse was built on this spot in 1829. The structure of the lighthouse had 2 lights installed, one at either end of the lighthouse. The two-light system was supposed to help mariners identify the light from a distance. Shortly after the house was constructed, the Warrior wrecked off the coast, killing 21 people. There’s a dangerous cross-flow of currents off the north end of the island, and the rocks have claimed many ships, including the mysterious “Palentine Ghost Ship.”
The lighthouse had to be moved in further from the tumultuous winds and that was erected in 1837, similar to the first one with 2 lights on either side of the dwelling. Mariners complained to the town’s people that the lights were too dim to guide them through the passage. Another one was built in 1857, but the strong winds soon threatened this one also.
The present day lighthouse was built in 1868, about seven feet farther inland. The structure, built from granite and with an iron tower, cost the islanders $15000. The light used a Fresnel lens that could project a light for a few miles into the ocean. Eventually occulting light and then later a flashing light replaced the original light.
Over the years, there have been many keepers. Hiram Ball that stayed in this lighthouse for approximately 30 years. The next keeper of the light was Donald Lawson that lived there with his wife, who was a nurse, and their son. They would travel to the city and back to the lighthouse on their bikes for groceries. When someone complained to federal authorities that these people needed a vehicle to get to the station instead of their bikes, they were soon given a jeep that helped them across the sandy shores.
The North Lighthouse became automated in 1956 and remained in use until 1973 when it was deactivated. There was a skeleton tower that replaced “Old Granitesides” instead. In 1973, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the lighthouse and the 28 acres surrounding the lighthouse and turned it into a refuge for wildlife. The lighthouse had basically been ignored and had been vandalized considerably. Eventually the United States Fish and Wildlife sold the lighthouse and surrounding land to the Town of New Shoreham for $1.00.
There was a lot of renovation to the old lighthouse and eventually the optic from the skeleton tower was returned to the North Lighthouse. The light was re-lighted in 1989 and then in 1993 the first floor of the lighthouse was turned into a museum, displaying pictures of former caretakers of the light, shipwrecks and the actual Fresnel light from the first lighthouse. The museum hopes to have a caretaker reside on the fourth floor.
There is a 420-watt solar system in place now at the lighthouse, which provides most of the energy to the lighthouse. There was an inspection of the building in 2001, which showed a lot of deterioration to the structure. The town was awarded $400,000.00 from the Federal Transportation Enhancement Program. While under construction, the town decided to move the navigational light to another location until the renovations are done. The town is hoping to finish the fourth floor, which will provide rooms for guests in the near future.
Presently, lighthouses are still being used all over the world, providing guidance to ships of all sizes through the ravaging storms of Mother Nature, or the dark, forbidden nights. Though the Northern Light doesn’t have a keeper at the present time, it still shines its mighty light, guiding glistening ships and their patrons to the island for a fun time. So, come and enjoy another taste in Rhode Island’s favorite vacationing spots, Block Island, and see for yourself.