1873-1875: Construction and First Illumination
The lighthouse is an imposing edifice, joined to a pretty cottage … and if it chances to be visiting hour … someone of the three families whom the cottage harbors leads the way up the three flights of winding stairs and up to the ‘crystal palace’–the glistening, wonderful thing that a first order light always is. This is indeed one of the wonders of our coast.…
Pleasant Places in Rhode Island, Providence, 1893
Late 19th and 20th Century: U.S. Lighthouse Service
This lighthouse has, in fact, saved lives. It stands as a symbol of the strength of character of the Block Island people and of Block Island itself.
Captain John R. (Rob) Lewis, U. S. Merchant Marine Master Pilot
Honorary chairman, Southeast Lighthouse Foundation
Mid-20th Century: Bluff Erosion Monitored
I hope this can be an inspiration … not just for Block Island … but for groups everywhere who look at things and see what is seemingly impossible … that it can be done.
Martha Ball, life-time resident, author, and member of Block Island Town Council
Great-great granddaughter of Nicholas Ball.
August 27th, 1994: Relighting
The sea captains and doctor who saved the lighthouse
Dr. Gerald F. Abbott remembers the day he brought up the idea of saving the Southeast Lighthouse to John R. “Rob” Lewis. Gerry Abbott was a radiologist from New York, a newcomer to Block Island who fell in love with the lighthouse the first time he sailed by, in August 1980. When he came ashore for a closer look, he overheard someone telling a tourist that the shoreline was eroding so badly the lighthouse was going to fall into the ocean. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Abbott. Three years later, he looked for help.
Rob Lewis was a lifelong island resident, 65 then and newly retired from 30 years of running the island’s only hardware store. During World War II, he defied bombers and submarines trying to sink his ships. He had raised three children with his wife, Alyce. And he had launched the Block Island Conservancy, which had received international recognition and by that time, 1983, had helped preserve about 10 percent of the island.
The Southeast Lighthouse, completed in 1875, was a New England icon. At 52 feet high and built on top of a 158-foot cliff, it was the tallest and brightest lighthouse on the East Coast. Now this young doctor, on the board of the Block Island Historical Society, asked in one of its meetings if Rob would help him keep the lighthouse from falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
“He had this very open expression. He was receptive,” Abbott recalled.
“He said, ‘Yes, well, let’s try.'”
“That was it.”
That brief exchange was all it took to begin a campaign that would soon involve many of the island residents. Also speaking up at the meeting was Capt. Evan Dodge, Rob’s lifelong friend and fellow retired shipmaster. He too said he would help. The two became co-chairmen of the newly formed Southeast Lighthouse Foundation.
EVERY LIGHTHOUSE was important to these old mariners who navigated in the days before radar or electronic locating devices. A lighthouse could mean the difference between life and death. And this particular lighthouse was especially important to Rob. When he was captaining ships from Boston to New York, he would call Alyce with his schedule. As his ship approached Block Island, she would drive their children down to the Southeast Lighthouse. He would flash the ship’s signal light, and she would blink back with the car’s headlights.
The Southeast Lighthouse was designed to be a showpiece for the U.S. Lighthouse Bureau. President Ulysses S. Grant was the first noteworthy visitor. The Gothic revival lighthouse and adjoining 2-story keeper’s quarters quickly became the island’s most popular tourist attraction and most photographed landmark. Its image has appeared in national magazines, calendars and postcards. Block Islanders, worried about erosion, had convinced the Coast Guard to build the lighthouse 300 feet from the edge of Mohegan Bluffs, leaving a space the size of a football field. But by the early 1980s, weather had narrowed the gap to just 55 feet – shorter than the distance from a pitcher’s mound to home plate.
The first step in saving the lighthouse was to talk to the Coast Guard. To his surprise, Abbott discovered that the Coast Guard was planning to demolish the lighthouse and had set aside $125,000 for the job. The deteriorating structure was no longer useful to the Coast Guard. It planned to extinguish the beacon and replace it with a modern, electronic signal mounted on a steel frame. In December 1984, Abbott lined up a meeting with a Coast Guard admiral in Boston. Rob Lewis, Evan Dodge, Jean Napier, a direct descendent of the first keeper of the lighthouse, and Capt. John Rountree, a retired Coast Guard captain who lived on Block Island, came too.
“I did most of the talking,” Abbott said. “But the folks I brought with me — they had such an aura. The merchant marine captains. The lighthouse keeper’s relative. The Coast Guard captain.” The Coast Guard representatives said they couldn’t do much, but they’d do what they could.
“I think they were impressed with us,” Abbott said. “They responded and were cooperative.” Abbott believes the Coast Guard was happy to be rid of the lighthouse, which it thought of as a crumbling albatross. But turning the landmark over to civilians would be more complicated than anyone on the island realized. Over the next several years, the Coast Guard did engineering studies on the lighthouse. It moved personnel out of the family quarters. And it agreed to transfer ownership to the island’s newly formed Southeast Lighthouse Foundation. The transfer, which occurred in 1991 – seven years after the initial meeting — was authorized by the first of three Acts that Congress eventually passed to save the lighthouse.
Now there was hope. But there was a lot more to do – and a lot of money to raise. A study by a renowned Dutch engineer, Rudi van Leeuwen, looked into buttressing the bluffs. But he concluded the work would cost $4 million to $6 million and eventually would fail because heavy seas would eat away land on each side of the lighthouse. Slowly, the idea of moving the lighthouse began to take hold. Van Leeuwen recommended dragging the lighthouse inland. His initial price estimate was $1.6 million. Abbott credits the two sea captains, Lewis and Dodge, and former Town Clerk Edith L. Blane with lending credibility to his dream of saving the lighthouse.
But Rob Lewis said, “Gerry is the one who really brought new blood and new life into the historical society. And then from there, Gerry was really the one who got us going on the lighthouse. He was really the one who deserves the credit. It’s his vision and energy.” The fact is, it took the old-timers’ prestige, Abbott’s energy and help from many others, especially U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee, to keep the rescue effort going for many years.
The rescue started in a small way. The islanders won a $17,000 grant from the Rhode Island Committee of the Humanities in the summer of 1988 to create an exhibit on the history of the lighthouse. The exhibit described the island’s emergence in the 19th century from a farming and fishing community to a Victorian tourist destination. It was displayed around the state. It raised money. And it impressed a new savior.
“I had never met Senator Chafee before. But he came out to the island one day, and he seemed to be taken by our exhibit,” recalled Abbott. “He seemed especially drawn to one of the most poignant things in the exhibit, a collection of letters written in the local dialect. Everything was written as a’s — as in “he was a-going”, or “he was a-haying”.
“After that, Chafee really went to bat for us,” said Abbott. “Now, I would say, we are a-movin’.”
In 1987, Chafee sponsored legislation that provided $1 million for the preservation of lighthouses nationwide. Rhode Island received $48,000, and $7,000 went to the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation. Later Chafee introduced legislation authorizing the federal government to pay half the cost of the move — about $970,000 — if the rest could be raised locally. When it accepted ownership of the lighthouse, the foundation also received 13 acres surrounding it. It sold most of the land to the state to expand the scenic viewpoint at Mohegan Bluffs, just to the west. The state paid $600,000 and the Champlin Foundations, one of Rhode Island’s leading philanthropies, added $100,000.
That left $270,000 for the lighthouse foundation to raise.
Rob kicked off the fundraising campaign with one of his letters. Once again, he laid out a huge challenge for the island in his conversational, matter-of-fact way that took it for granted that success was possible.
The lighthouse “is a symbol of the strength of character of the Block Island people, and of Block Island itself,” Rob wrote. “This is the Block Island we have always known; the Heritage which has come down to us. We see here not only the Mariners, but also the Farmers, the Housewives, and others of this sea-going oriented community.”
In the letter Rob wrote about preserving Block Island’s two endangered species, the American burying beetle and the Block Island meadow vole. He wrote of shipwrecks and fishermen and navigating with weighted lines. He described the long history of the Coast Guard on the island and the daily practices with surf boats in heavy seas.
“We see Block Island Southeast Lighthouse as a very rugged symbol of strength: solid, permanent, always there, as dependable as the Rock of Gibraltar, even though the Lighthouse is momentarily perched at the top of a rapidly eroding cliff.”
“Rescue of the endangered is a Block Island tradition, a tradition we now must extend to our treasured Southeast Lighthouse. We have dedicated our efforts in this, Captain Evan Dodge and I, to the memories of the Block Island People as we have always known and understood them –our People; and to the memories of the Block Island we have always known. Won’t you please help us in this rescue mission!”
That last sentence was not a question. Rob expected his neighbors to help. And they did. Abbott said he did little else that summer other than solicit money. The foundation met its fundraising goal. But that wasn’t the last hurdle. The Army Corps of Engineers, chosen by Congress to supervise the move, demanded an additional $324,000 for administrative services. The islanders turned to Chafee again. He tried but failed to raise the money through another federal appropriation. Then he simply introduced legislation forcing the Army to absorb the costs. In 1990, the Coast Guard turned off the old lighthouse and erected a steel tower nearby with an automated beacon.
FINALLY, in the spring of 1993 — almost a decade after Abbott first raised the issue with the historical society – contractors began ferrying out equipment for the biggest moving job ever seen on the island. Their goal was to strengthen the structure with a lattice of steel beams and cables, lift it off its foundation with 38 hydraulic jacks, place it on a series of steel rails and push it back 245 feet from the cliffs — all before the start of the hurricane season.
All year, islanders and visitors trekked to the work site. It took several months to truss the oldbrick building and lift it off its foundation. In mid-August, there was a ceremony to celebrate the move. As hydraulic jacks nudged the 4-million-pound structure along the tracks, the state’s political leaders began to tug on a thick rope – anticlimactic because the building moved so slowly that it looked like nothing was happening. But there were plenty of speeches and a big crowd. Several television crews and one documentary filmmaker shot videos. And after the politicians left, islanders stuck around and watched the lighthouse move another 20 feet. Rob Lewis was among them. He couldn’t stop smiling. “It’s all in a day’s work,” he said. The movers completed the job near the end of August. No hurricanes threatened.
The movers pushed a boulder the size of a small car over to where the lighthouse had been for so many years, so visitors could better see and appreciate the move. It took another year to get the light turned back on. The existing, 8-foot tall Fresnel lens was designed to float on a bed of toxic mercury, rendering it obsolete. But the Coast Guard finally came to the rescue with a historic French lens taken from a deactivated lighthouse in Virginia.
On the last Saturday of August 1994, politicians, islanders and lighthouse enthusiasts from all over New England showed up for the ceremony to relight the lighthouse. Even the beloved Fred Benson, 99, who had been the island’s oldest resident until his recent move to the mainland, joined in. The ceremonies began at 5 p.m. and the lighting was scheduled for one hour before sunset. Politicians gave their speeches. The Coast Guard Band performed. Islanders sipped cocktails. First Warden Edward S. McGovern said the lighthouse was more than a picturesque old building.
“And moving it was more than just an act of sentiment,” he said. “The lighthouse has become the symbol of Rhode Island, and moving it makes historical and economic sense.”
Rob was there. More needs to be done, he kept telling people. The building and the keeper’s quarters needed to be restored and renovated. The foundation hoped to turn the quarters into a bed-and-breakfast, to pay for maintaining the lighthouse and a museum. Since then, the slate roof has been replaced, as well as the copper gutters and the porch. Renovations will begin soon on the interior.
Abbott says he’ll never forget the look on Rob’s face the moment the lighthouse was switched on. “He had this beatific smile,” Abbott said. “He was just beaming.” The lighthouse continues casting its signal across the sea. And tourists flock to it every summer. They see the massive brick building. They look at the huge boulder that marks where it once stood. But few know the story of the old sea captains and the doctor who saved the lighthouse.
Peter B. Lord
June 7, 2005
Since its relocation, the building’s exterior has undergone extensive restoration efforts to replace the roof, repoint brickwork, restore windows and all cast iron elements of the light tower. Throughout those years of restoration, the Southeast Lighthouse received thousands of visitors who were able to enter the Light Tower, with optional tours to climb the stairs and view the first-order Fresnel lens. Current restoration efforts are focused on the building’s interior to create exhibition spaces projected to open in the summer of 2021. A final phase of restoration will adapt a portion of interior space as a residential rental unit to provide income to support future maintenance needs.
Southeast Lighthouse Keepers, 1873–1990
When your father went to work at night, he went up into the tower … and stood a 12-hour shift … He had to constantly scan the horizon … at that time there were hundreds of vessels that went by every day.
Jean Clark Napier, great-granddaughter of Henry Clark, the first Keeper of the Southeast Light, who was followed as Keeper by her great uncle Simon Dodge, and later by her grandfather Willet Clark, who served as Keeper until 1931
- Henry W. Clark (1873-1887)
- J. W. Tourgee (1st assistant, 1873-1874)
- Nathaniel Dodge (1st assistant, 1874-1882)
- Chad E. Dodge (2nd assistant 1874-1878)
- Uriah D. Dodge (asst., 1879-1881)
- Bauis E. Dodge (2nd assistant 1878-1882)
- John T. Hayes (2nd assistant 1882, 1st assistant 1882-1883)
- T. H. Littlefield (2nd asst., 1882-1883)
- Charles F. Milliken (2nd asst., 1883, 1st asst., 1883-1886)
- Simon Dodge (2nd asst., 1883-1886, 1st asst. 1886-1887, head keeper 1887-1923)
- Willet H. Clark (2nd asst., 1886-1887, 1st asst., 1887-1908)
- Charles E. Westcott (2nd asst., 1887-1905)
- Everett A. Hoxie (2nd asst., 1905-1907)
- William Baker (2nd asst., 1907-1908)
- George L. Hoxie (2nd asst., 1908-1912)
- Lewis Schutt (2nd asst., 1908-1912)
- Samuel Pickup (2nd asst., 1912-1918)
- Ezra Dunn (2nd asst., 1918-1919)
- Edward Murphy (2nd asst., 1919-1921)
- Lawrence H. Congdon (2nd asst. Jan 7, 1920 to April 1, 1922)
- John H. Miller (2nd asst., 1923-1927)
- Hugo R. Carlson (2nd asst., 1927-1931)
- Willet H. Clark (1924-1930)
- Charles M. Ball (1st asst., 1923-1929)
- Earl E. Carr (1st asst., 1929-1938, head keeper 1938-1941)
- Carl F. W. Anderson (2nd asst., May 1923 to Nov. 1924; head keeper Sept. 1930 to Mar. 1938)
- Elmer F. O’Toole (2nd asst. 1931-1939, 1st asst. 1939-1941)
- Charles A. Rogers (2nd asst. 1935-1941)
- Alfred L. Bennett (1st asst. 1941)
- BMC2 Earl A. Rose (2nd asst. 1941, Coast Guard officer in charge 1941-?)
- Howard Beebe (Coast Guard, 1948-1950)
- Arthur Gaspar (Coast Guard, 1946-1947)
- Russell Lary (Coast Guard, 1972-1973)
- Michael Lavoie (Coast Guard, c. mid-1970s)
- Robert Niesel (?) (Coast Guard, c. early 1980s)
- Randy Wadsworth (Coast Guard, 1984-1985)
- Steven Koskinen (Coast Guard, 1986-1990)