Friday, January 1, 2010

Lighthouse of the Week - Warwick Light, Rhode Island

Vessels passing through the West Passage of Narragansett Bay, an increasingly busy waterway in the early 1800s, had to contend with a narrow channel between Warwick Neck and the northern extremity of Patience Island, less than a mile to the southeast. It’s believed that a privately operated beacon was in use at the end of Warwick Neck in Colonial times.

Congress appropriated $3,000 in 1825 and 1826 for a proper lighthouse at the point. The first lighthouse on Warwick Neck was small and unusual, consisting of a 30-foot tower atop a tiny stone dwelling with only two rooms, each about 11 feet square. The tower was square at its base, but the corners toward the top were cut back to form an octagonal shape.

The first keeper to live at the station, Elisha Case, was provided insufficient living space for himself and his family, and the house was exceedingly damp. Case was replaced by Daniel Waite in 1831, but only after Case was granted the right to harvest crops he had planted at the lighthouse. After Waite’s death late in 1832, his widow, Abby Waite, became the next keeper. A wood-frame extension with three rooms added in 1833 improved the living conditions, but there were still bothersome leaks at the junction between the addition and the original structure.

A fog bell and striking machinery were added to the station in 1882. Five years later, the keeper’s dwelling was described as “very old and dilapidated.” Funds were appropriated and a new house, further back from the edge of the bluff, was constructed in 1889. The wood-frame, Gothic Revival house was similar to many keepers’ houses built in New England in the 1870s and 1880s. It survives today with only minor changes. The 1833 addition to the original dwelling was moved onto a new foundation in 1892 and remodeled into a barn.

A powerful new siren succeeded the station’s fog bell in 1900. With the added duties of maintaining the fog signal equipment, an assistant keeper was assigned to the station for some years starting in the early part of the century.

A long battle against erosion has been waged to the south of the lighthouse. A concrete retaining wall was added in 1924, but the 1826 lighthouse was getting precariously close to the edge. Finally, the Bureau of Lighthouses determined a new lighthouse tower was called for. In many locations by this time, lights on utilitarian steel skeletal towers were replacing lighthouses. Thankfully, at Warwick, a more traditional-style conical cast-iron tower was erected, the last of its kind to be established in New England. A new electrically powered foghorn was also installed.

The new 43-foot tower was erected close to the 1889 keeper’s house. Unlike many similar lighthouses, this one has no brick lining. Its iron spiral stairway is steeper than most, leading from the base right up to the lantern room. Ten floor lights in the lantern room lend sunlight to the interior below, and there are also five portholes around the upper part of the tower, just below the lantern.

Jorgen Bakken, who had been keeper since 1912, was ill at the time the new lighthouse was erected. His assistant (the final assistant keeper at the station) was Edward Murphy, previously at Block Island Southeast Light in Rhode Island and Stamford Harbor Light in Connecticut. Murphy took over as the head keeper later in 1932, and was in charge when the great hurricane of September 21, 1938, walloped the area. Warwick sustained more property damage than any community in Rhode Island during the epic storm, with 700 permanent homes and hundreds of summer cottages destroyed.

The great storm ate an enormous amount of earth out of the bluff, undermining the lighthouse’s foundation and leaving it practically teetering on the brink of falling into the bay. Electric power was lost, and for almost two weeks Keeper Murphy had to operate the light using a portable generator. Another severe storm might have finished it off, but the fates were kind and the tower was moved back to safer ground about a year after the hurricane. In September 1939, workers lifted the tower using heavy jacks and logs, and it was rolled along planking to its new home about 50 feet inland.

Harry A. Wilbur became keeper in 1953. The Coast Guard took over the operation of the nation’s lighthouses in 1939, and the civilian Lighthouse Service keepers were given the option of joining the Coast Guard or not. Wilbur, who had been a Lighthouse Service keeper in Massachusetts going back to 1937, chose to remain a civilian. He spent a decade at Warwick Light, retiring in 1963.

Alan Penney was the Coast Guard lightkeeper from 1978 to 1982. His daughter was born at the station. “We never had so many friends and family visit us as we did when we lived there,” he says. “We even had our cousins from Germany come, and they said in their broken English ‘You live like a millionaire!’” After 24 years in the Coast Guard, Penney and his wife ultimately moved back to Rhode Island because of their love for the area and the many friends they had made.

The light’s automation was completed in the late summer of 1985, but the Coast Guard retained the station for family housing. The Coast Guard has opened the grounds on occasion. At other times, the public has to be content with the view from the gate at the end of Warwick Neck Avenue.

Click here for more information and photos.

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