Friday, June 12, 2009

Lighthouse of the week: Pomham Rocks Light, Rhode Island

Pomham Rocks is a stark islet of approximately one-half acre rising out of the Providence River, about 800 feet from the east shore in the Riverside section of East Providence. It's named for a Narragansett Indian sachem who was killed in King Phillip’s War in 1676. Some locals will tell you it’s pronounced with equal emphasis on both syllables—“Pom-ham” rather than “Pom-um.”

With increased shipping traffic heading toward Providence, Pomham Rocks was an obvious place to establish a navigational aid. A pyramidal daymark was erected around 1828, but something more was needed to help ensure the safety of the parade of vessels that passed day and night. Congress granted an appropriation of $20,000 on July 15, 1870, for three lights on the river—at Pomham Rocks, Sassafras Point, and Fuller Rock.

At Pomham Rocks, a wooden dwelling with a mansard roof was built on a granite foundation, 28 by 28 feet, with a hexagonal lighthouse tower mounted on the front center of the building. The light was first exhibited on December 1, 1871, with a sixth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light. On October 1, 1872, the characteristic was changed to fixed red.

The first keeper, C. H. Salisbury, had a long 22-year stay. Adolph Herman Aronson was keeper for a 29-year stretch beginning in 1908. Aronson was a native of Sweden who came to America in 1890, when he was 18. After service on the Hog Island Shoal Lightship and the lighthouse that replaced it, he went to Pomham Rocks with his wife, Nellie (Johnson), and their three children.

Sometimes in winter it was possible to walk to shore on the ice, but usually Keeper Aronson transported his children to East Providence by boat so they could attend school. If the water was rough near shore, he’d wear rubber boots so he could carry them to dry land from the boat.

A feline member of the family named Tommy 3rd landed the Aronsons in newspapers around the country. It seems Tommy the tabby would perch on the edge of the island watching for unsuspecting fish, waiting for the right moment to dive in and catch them.

Adolph Aronson retired from lighthouse keeping in 1937. The next keeper was William J. Howard, who moved to Pomham Rocks with his wife and their teenage son, Bill Jr. Although Pomham Rocks was scarcely more than a stone’s throw from East Providence, it was frequently a nightmare to get ashore, especially in winter. Young Bill Jr. commuted via rowboat to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, and sometimes in rough weather he’d be hours late for class.

Howard Beebe retired in 1956 as the last civilian keeper at Pomham Rocks. He was followed by a succession of Coast Guard crews. The fog bell mechanism still needed to be wound every few hours and the light still ran on kerosene until November 1956, when a cable from shore brought electricity to the island for the first time.

In the spring of 1974, the Coast Guard relocated the navigational light to the top of a skeletal tower erected near the lighthouse, and the last Coast Guard crew was reassigned. By May 1978, the General Services Administration had declared the lighthouse surplus federal property. The General Services Administration accepted sealed bids for the lighthouse in August 1980. The highest of 30 bids—$40,100—came from the Mobil Oil Company, which maintained a large refinery and terminal near the lighthouse in East Providence.

The last few years has seen the birth of a new group of guardians for the historic structure—the Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse (FPRL), a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF). The Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse was officially launched as a chapter of ALF in late 2004. In June 2005, a contract was signed by Keith Lescarbeau of the Abcore Restoration Company Inc. to begin restoration work.

The first phase of restoration included repairs to the roof, lantern, siding, and trim. The tower, which had developed a seven-degree tilt, was straightened and secured. About 40 percent of the original siding was salvaged, and a window that had been covered for years by the new siding was reconstructed.

On July 30, 2006, the navigational light was returned to the lighthouse. The Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse plan to install exhibits in the restored building and to open it periodically for the public. The motto of the Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse is, appropriately, “Guiding the Way Along the Bay since 1871.” It appears that this tradition will continue for many years to come.

For more, click here, or get the book "The Lighthouses of Rhode Island."