Block Island, south of the Rhode Island coast and east of the entrance to Long Island Sound, lies in the middle of major shipping lanes. A lighthouse was established at the island’s northernmost point in 1829, but it did nothing to aid vessels heading past the south side of the island. Congress appropriated $75,000 for a first-order light and fog signal in 1872, and a brick dwelling and attached 67-foot-tall brick tower were built. The light went into operation on February 1, 1875.
The architecture of the lighthouse has been classified as the High Victorian Gothic style, with Italianate influences. The building is an architectural showcase that’s totally unlike any other lighthouse ever built in the New England region. It was also a technological showcase and was regarded as one of the best-equipped stations on the coast, with a huge first-order Fresnel lens from France.
Block Island Southeast Light Station was one of the last in the country to be automated and de-staffed. In December 1989, the navigational light was relocated to a steel skeleton tower. At that time, the lighthouse building was severely endangered by erosion of the bluff. Funding was secured for a move of the lighthouse to safer ground, and the move took place in 1993. The lighthouse was returned to service as an aid to navigation following the move.
Restoration has been ongoing, and most recently the interior of the building has been renovated and new exhibits have been installed. Lisa Nolan is the executive director of the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation, and Dr. Gerald Abbott is the president.
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Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org