Southeast Lighthouse reopens its doors to the public after 28 years
Through storms, shipwrecks, foggy weather, eroding bluffs and massive renovations including moving the whole structure, the Southeast Lighthouse has remained a popular destination on Block Island, drawing thousands of visitors annually to tour the tower and the grounds. But there is more to the lighthouse than the tower with its rare Fresnel lens beaming light out into the night, and its spectacular daytime views. Part of any lighthouse is the house part, where the keepers
who worked at the lighthouse actually lived. And no one from the public had been inside the keepers’ quarters at the Southeast Lighthouse in 28 years.
The Southeast Lighthouse sits at the southeast corner of Mohegan Bluffs, 200 feet above the Atlantic, making it the highest lighthouse in New England. The lighthouse was built in 1874, with the first lighting occurring on February 1, 1875. The Southeast Light serves as a primary coastal light within the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
The keeper’s cottage is set up as a duplex and originally housed three lighthouse keepers and their families. The keepers’ duties included lighting and supervising the oil lamp that was used to illuminate the original first-order Fresnel lens, operating the steam driven fog horn, and patrolling the coastline around the lighthouse.
The lighthouse sat in its original location for 119 years as the eroding Mohegan Bluffs inched the structure closer and closer to the edge.
In 1983 the Block Island Historical Society initiated the effort to move the Southeast Lighthouse and rescue it from the edge of the eroding cliffs. Under the
leadership of Dr. Gerald F. Abbott, the Historical Society began working in cooperation with the United States Coast Guard, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with the successful campaign to move the lighthouse taking ten years, three Acts of Congress, and $2.3 million.
On August 27, 1994 the Southeast Light was re-lit in it’s new location, 245 feet from its original site, having been moved safely away from the edge of the bluff. The light had been out of operation for four years during the moving process.
Restoration began on the outside of the building in 2003, returning the Victorian era porches, windows, and trim to their original appearance and color schemes. A new slate roof was installed, masonry was repointed, and the chimneys were returned to their Victorian heights. Work continued on the exterior with repairs made to the cast iron lighthouse tower decking and rails, including returning the railings to their original octagonal design, and casting several replacement deck sections.
The interior of the lighthouse remained closed after the move, however, with only the tower open for touring. The Southeast Lighthouse Foundation undertook restoration efforts on the interior of the lighthouse, completing the restoration of one half of the keeper’s duplex cottage, which is now open to the public for the first time in 28 years. Keith Lescarbeau of Abcore Restoration supervised the project, with countless specialists and contractors working to bring the beauty and character of the old building back to life. As Abbot remarked on a recent tour of the completed section, “All it takes is money and time.”
It has been time and money well spent, with the interior set up as a museum. It features prints, paintings, and pictures, provided by the Block Island Historical Society and others, explaining the history of the lighthouse, its keepers, and its restoration. There are also plenty of interesting time-period specific pieces such as trunks from the Larchmont shipwreck of 1907 that washed ashore on the island.
The Foundation has meticulously restored the interior in a historically accurate fashion, even using original lighthouse bedroom furnishings donated by Jean Napier, whose grandfather, Willet Clark Jr., was keeper of the lighthouse from 1924 to 1930. The displays throughout the museum show multiple aspects of Southeast Lighthouse history and Block Island history, with a guided tour that brings the visitor into the lighthouse’s nineteenth century world.
The Southeast Lighthouse Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Labor Day weekend, then weekends in the fall.