North Light turns 150

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 4:15pm

One hundred and fifty years ago, a light emanating from a new Block Island building shone out on Long Island Sound for the first time, lighting the way for frigates, schooners, fishing vessels, double enders, sloops, and whatever else may have been sailing in those dark waters at the time.

A Notice to Mariners that was issued on Sept. 7, 1868, must have been welcome news:

Information is hereby given that, on and after September 15, 1868, the light on Block Island, off eastern entrance to Long Island Sound, will be shown from the new dwelling of the keeper, built of gray granite, and situated 400 yards south of the present light station. The altitude of the light will be increased ten feet.

The illuminating apparatus is by a lens of the fourth order, showing a fixed white light, which can be seen in clear weather at a distance of 12 nautical miles.

Block Island's North Light 150th anniversary will celebrate its first lighting at the Block Island School on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at 6:30 p.m.

A live feed from the lighthouse's webcams is being arranged to display the lighting of the automated beacon at dusk during the celebration.

A great deal has happened since that first night in 1868. When the Southeast Lighthouse was built in 1873, it resulted in the earlier light's name change to Block Island North Light. The granite building, its cast iron tower and its fourth-order Fresnel lens, have endured major hurricanes in 1938, 1954 and 2012, among others. Indoor plumbing was installed in the 1930s. The keeper's quarters and the beacon itself were lit by kerosene lamps until 1956, when the beacon was automated with a battery-powered electric lamp and the last keeper was reassigned by the Coast Guard. Then a slow period of decline began, culminating in the lighthouse's decommissioning and abandonment in 1973.

This once-derelict building has since become an icon for the Block Island community, thanks to the successful efforts by the town, and dedicated volunteers since the 1970s, to preserve and restore the building. The maritime Interpretive Center opened to the public 25 years ago, in July 1993. Its century-old fourth-order Fresnel lens has served again in the tower as a private aid to navigation since October 2010.

This year, the lighthouse is included in the design of a coin to be issued by the U.S. Mint in November 2018. The Rhode Island quarter, part of the Mint's ongoing “America the Beautiful” series featuring national parks, monuments and historic sites in each state and territory, pictures a black-crowned night heron flying over the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge at Cow Cove, with the lighthouse in the distance. Rhode Island is one of only two states whose featured site is a National Wildlife Refuge. The image was adapted for pressed glass suncatchers available for sale, along with three other designs.

At the celebration, Rob Gilpin, Chair of the North Light Commission, will highlight the progress made to restore the building since the town acquired the property from the U.S. Department of the Interior in the 1980s.

Several speakers, including architect Walter Sedovic, FAIA LEED, and other people who have been connected to the North Light's history and preservation, have been invited to attend. 

Hours: Weekends only. Saturdays, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Sundays, Noon to 4 p.m. Admission: $3/adults; children under 12 free. Ed. Note: Pat Tengwall is employed as a docent at the North Lighthouse.