Friday, April 3, 2009

Lighthouse of the Week - Sakonnet Light, Rhode Island

I'm always drawn to the isolated, offshore lighthouses because of the dramatic human history that's often associated with them. That's certainly the case with this wave-swept beacon, located offshore from Little Compton, Rhode Island. I had photographed all the other lights in RI before this one, except for the distant view available from the beach at Little Compton. In recent years I've been lucky enough to view it from a boat and from a helicopter.

The name "Sakonnet," by the way, is said to come from a local Indian word for "abode of the black goose." The Sakonnet River, actually an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, separates Tiverton and Little Compton from the busier Aquidneck Island to the west. If you stop around here for jonnycakes (cornmeal pancakes) or a cabinet (milkshake), you might hear someone use the old time pronunciation, “S’cunnet.”

Back to the human drama. Here's an excerpt from my book, The Lighthouses of Rhode Island (Commonwealth Editions, 2006):

Life at offshore lighthouses could be stressful in many ways, particularly when personality conflicts developed between keepers. For several years in the 1930s, the first assistant keeper of Sakonnet Light was Samuel Fuller, who had a long career in the lighthouse service. The second assistant keeper from 1937 to 1939 was Ralph L. Sellers. A maintenance man named George Nemetz later recalled a confrontation between the two men.

During a January rainstorm, probably in 1937, Sellers was relaxing with a book by the kitchen stove. William H. Durfee, the head keeper, was away from the station. Tensions had apparently been building for some time between Sellers and Fuller, but Sellers was nevertheless shocked when he suddenly sensed sharp, chilly pressure from a yard-long icicle being pressed against his neck by Fuller.

Sellers jumped up, ran to a drawer, and grabbed a butcher knife. The two men circled round and round a center post. As the weird waltz continued, the heat inside the lighthouse melted Fuller’s weapon, and Sellers broke the icicle with his knife. Fuller ran through a door to the gallery outside, and Sellers locked the door behind him. According to Nemetz, Fuller remained outside for two days before a passing fishing boat picked him up. He managed to stay somewhat warm by lying on a spot on the floor that was directly over the fog signal machinery. Both Sellers and Fuller were transferred to other locations, and they never worked at the same lighthouse again.

If that's not dramatic enough, read the account of the catastrophic hurricane of 1938 on my site at The aftermath of that storm was summed by one of the keepers: "We were surprised when we looked to the point and saw that everything had been washed away."

The Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse have been caring for this cast-iron structure for more than 20 years. As anyone involved in lighthouse preservation knows, the care of an offshore lighthouse is daunting and very expensive. I was very pleased to see that the Friends were granted funds from the federal Transportation Enhancement Program in 2006.

I recently received this restoration update from architect Deane Rykerson, based on a presentation given by John Wathne of Structures North:

The structure is a cast-iron drum with an interior lining of brick. The structure tapers with thick flanged iron sheets engaging masonry. Although this is not truly a structural composite, the iron and brick interlock in such a way that one cannot move without the other moving. Brick growth, natural cement mortar harder than the bricks of the liner, and corrosion jacking on the inner faces and joints of the iron sheets, work together to announce the lighthouse's deterioration as a "paint problem" to passing recreation boaters. The primary problem with corrosion, and the primary consequence of paint failure, occurs at the joints of the panels of the drum, which are bolted but not welded and no longer watertight on the exterior.

Structures North decided to tear out the existing brick liner in vertical "lifts," dropping it into the void of the caisson below. This avoids the costs and environmental issues of disposal of the brick at this off-shore site. The cast iron will be shot blasted on both sides then painted with a 3-part paint system (zinc-rich primer, epoxy, and polyurethane top coat). New brick will be brought to the site to replace the ruined liner. The project is currently working its way through permitting at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. John is full of admiration for his client group who has stayed with the project enthusiastically - even as its complications unfolded.

I wish the Friends success and good luck in all their efforts. You can read more about Sakonnet Light on my site at