Rhode Island Lighthouse History

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Whale Rock Lighthouse


Whale Rock Lighthouse
Courtesy of the National Archives




Location: Entrance to West Passage of Narragansett Bay
Location: 1882 - presentl Lat 41 26 42 N - Long 71 25 24 W
Established: 1882

Lighthouse Constructed: 1882
Destroyed: 1938
Original Illuminating Apparatus: Lighthouese: Fourth Order Fresnel Lens
Second Illuminating Apparatus: 375-mm lens (1939)
Third Illuminating Apparatus:200-mm lens (1952)
Current Illuminating Apparatus: None
Height: Lighthouse: Light 73 feet from top of pier (1906)
Height: Skeleton tower: 30 feet - Light 59 feet above low water (1939)
Height: None (2005)
Status: No longer exists
Light Characteristic: Lighthouse: Fixed Red (1906)

Light Characteristic: Skeleton tower: Flashing Green every 3 seconds (1939)
Light Characteristic:Skeletontower:Flashing Green every 5 seconds (1952)

Light Characteristic: None (2005)
Range: Lighthouse: 11 miles (1906)
Range: Skeleton tower: 7 miles (1950)
Range: None (2005)
Fog Signal: Bell Struck By Machinery (1912)
Fog Signal Characteristic: Bell Struck 2 Times (1900)
Fog Signal Characteristic: Silent for 20 Seconds
Fog Signal Characteristic: Bell Struck 2 Times
Fog Signal Characteristic: Silent for 20 Seconds

Fog Signal Characteristic: Bell Struck 2 Times (1912)
Fog Signal Characteristic: Silent for 23 Seconds
Fog Signal Characteristic: Bell Struck 2 Times
Fog Signal Characteristic: Silent for 23 Seconds
Location: Established: Lighthouse Constructed: Destroyed: Original Illuminating Apparatus: Second Illuminating Apparatus: Third Illuminating Apparatus: Current Illuminating Apparatus: Height: Status: Light Characteristic: Range: Fog Signal: Fog Signal Characteristic:


Whale Rocks at the entrance to West Passage of Narragansett Bay claimed at least eight ships and six lives before the Lighthouse Board recommended building a light on the rock in 1872. In its annual report for that year, the Board described it as a "a reef of rocks awash at all stages of tides, and a dangerous obstruction to navigation ... " Congress ignored the Board's recommendation for nine years.

In 1881 Congress finally appropriated $35,000 to build Whale Rock Light. Building the light wasn't easy. Work could only be done at low tide and calm seas. Only the light's foundation was finished before autumn storms forced construction to stop. The light was completed in 1882 and lighted on October 1 of that year.

On September 21, 1938 Whale Rock's keeper Daniel Sullivan went ashore to get supplies. The assistant keeper, Walter Eberle, was left in charge of the light. The former navy man had been with the Lighthouse Service for just a year. While Sullivan was ashore the 1938 Hurricane hit Rhode Island and prevented him from returning to the light.

Whale Rock Light was hit repeatedly by waves that grew bigger as the storm grew stronger. Eberle probably took refuge in the lighthouse's top floor. Keepers at similar lighthouses in the area rode out the storm in the top floor, as the sea smashed out the sash windows on the lower floors, but did not break the port holes on the top floor. After hours of this punishment, the metal lighthouse reached its breaking point. A huge wave hit the lighthouse and tore off the lantern, watch room and the light's top two stories, killing Eberle. His body was never found. He left a wife and six children. The bottom two floors collapsed into the base, shortly after the hurricane ended. An examination of the remains of the lighthouse found books, shoes, clothing, and a made-up bed still intact.

Over the years there'd been speculation that Whale Rock Lighthouse wasn't fastened to its base. One keeper even put this belief into the lighthouse's log. Some local residents believed this was the reason the lighthouse was destroyed. On November 9, 1938, the 2nd District Associate Engineer visited the remains of Whale Rock Lighthouse to find out why it was destroyed. During the examination of its concrete base, he discovered the lighthouse wasn't fastened to the base. He found "no evidence of anchor bolts or any other means by which the cast iron tower plates were actually held the masonry pier, except for the brick tower lining, which appeared to be 8" thick at the bottom, and the mass of the entire tower." This wasn't the reason the lighthouse was destroyed, though. The engineer found some of the bolts holding the lighthouse's cast iron plate together were corroded. This weakened its structural integrity. The repeated pounding of the waves on September 21 jarred the corroded bolts loose and tore the top off.

On September 28, 1938, a type 9-38-W buoy was placed 300 yards east from Whale Rock. This new navigation aid was named Whale Rock Lighted Whistle Buoy 3. The people of Jamestown complained that it emitted "a most mournful depressing sound." They wanted it changed to either a lighted gong or bell buoy. The buoy was later changed to a gong buoy. In 1940 what remained of the lighthouse was removed from the base. A skeleton tower and light was placed on the base. The light was was extinguished during World War II so it couldn't be used as an aid to navigation by German U-boats. The light was removed in the 1950's.

In 2004 David Robinson, an undersea archeologist with the Public Archeology Lab in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, located the metal remains of the lighthouse. He said, the seabed was scattered with "millions of pieces of metal, some as big as desks.

Today all that remains of Whale Rock Lighthouse are the remnants of the foundation. It's gradually disintegrating. The photographs from 2000 to 2013 shows how much has been lost. In fifteen or twenty years it will be gone.


Whale Rock Lighthouse in 1900
Whale Rock Lighthouse
 Courtesy of N.L. Stebbins

Updated 10/9/2016

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