Today in Transportation History – 1875: A Famous Lighthouse Is Lit

Off the coast of mainland Rhode Island, a new lighthouse began operations on the southeastern shore of the Ocean State’s Block Island. This lighthouse, located on 150-foot (46-meter)-high clay cliffs known as the Mohegan Bluffs, was built in response to concerns about the hazardous waters along and near that part of Block Island. These concerns grew only stronger as an ever-increasing number of large vessels sailed through the high-risk area. (This region of Block Island is the first island landfall for vessels approaching the New England coast from the south or southeast.)

One disaster in particular that significantly galvanized public outcries for a navigational aid in the region took place in 1858 when the steamship Palmetto foundered and sank off the coast of southern Block Island. Finally, in 1872, the longtime demands for a lighthouse to help prevent such shipwrecks culminated in a petition that Block Island merchant and hotel proprietor Nicholas Ball prepared for signatures and submission. The petition asserted that Block Island was “passed by hundreds of vessels daily” and those vessels were “exposed to as much danger as at almost any other place on the entire coast of the United States.”

In response to this petition and its formal call for action, Congress approved an appropriation for $75,000 for the construction of a lighthouse and President Ulysses S. Grant signed the measure into law.   At the time of its debut, Block Island Southeast Light – featuring a customized first-rate Fresnel lens and state-of-the-art fog signal — was widely considered to be one of the best-equipped and most technologically advanced lighthouses in the entire United States. The lighthouse quickly established itself as one of the more vital navigational aids along the nation’s Eastern Seaboard. Early on in its existence, Southeast Light was also used for experiments jointly conducted by the U.S. Lighthouse Board and Smithsonian Institution and designed to measure the effects of local weather conditions and air currents.

In addition, Southeast Light achieved fame for its aesthetic appeal. From day one, the Victorian Gothic architectural style of the lighthouse helped make it a popular tourist attraction for those vacationing on Block Island. These tourists included the person whose signature made Southeast Light a reality in the first place. During the summer after the lighthouse went into service, Grant visited it while spending time on the island. Nicholas Ball accompanied the president to the lighthouse and introduced him to Henry W. Clark, its first keeper.

Clark would serve as Southeast Light’s keeper until 1887, and he also established a dynasty of sorts for the lighthouse. His daughter Bess married Simon Dodge, who was an assistant at Southeast Light starting in 1883 and succeeded Henry Clark as keeper. Dodge served as keeper until 1922. Henry Clark’s son Willet served as an assistant at the lighthouse from 1887 to 1922, then succeeded Dodge as keeper. Willet Clark, whose tenure as keeper lasted until 1930, evidently had a sixth sense for knowing when fog was en route long before it would even appear. It became typical of him to get the boilers at the lighthouse operating so that the fog signal would be ready when the fog finally arrived.

In 1990, the U.S. Coast Guard deactivated Southeast Light and started to use a nearby steel tower as a navigational aid instead. About three years later, the lighthouse was moved approximately 300 feet (91 meters) back from the edge of Mohegan Bluffs due to ongoing erosion there. Southeast Light is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

For more information about Block Island Southeast Light, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Block_Island_Southeast_Light and http://www.preservation.ri.gov/pdfs_zips_downloads/national_pdfs/new_shoreham/nesh_southeast-light-road_block-island-southeast-light.pdf.

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