Last Visited: June, 2000
The island is surrounded by dangerous shoals and ledges, and was sometimes called the "stumbling block" of the New England coast. Dozens of vessels went down near here in the years before the lighthouse authorities decided to build two lighthouses on the island: the North Light in 1829 and the Southeast Light in 1875.
In 1856, Congress appropriated $9,000 for the building of a lighthouse at the southeast shore of Block Island. The Lighthouse Board decided instead to use the money to rebuild the existing lighthouse at the northern tip of the island, and the building of the Southeast Light was put off indefinitely.
In 1872, a local merchant named Nicholas Ball circulated a petition for a lighthouse. The petition stated that vessels passing the southeast part of the island were "exposed to as much danger as at almost any other place on the entire coast of the United States." The Lighthouse Board agreed, and Congress appropriated $75,000 for the lighthouse.
The Southeast Light ended up costing about $80,000 -- $10,000 for the huge first-order Fresnel lens alone. The lighthouse was designated a primary seacoast aid to navigation, which meant it was equipped with the most powerful lighting apparatus available.
The keeper's house, attached to the tower, was a 2 1/2 story duplex residence with twin 1 1/2 story kitchen wings to the rear.
The building is brick with a granite foundation and trim. The octagonal tower is capped by a 16-sided cast-iron lantern.
In 1875, fog signal experiments were conducted near the lighthouse site by Joseph Henry, chairman of the Lighthouse Board and director of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry studied the effects of weather conditions and air currents on the ability of mariners to hear the steam-driven fog whistle. A new compressed air fog signal with kerosene engines was installed in 1906. Two years later the fog signal house was destroyed by fire. A new building and fog signal equipment were soon installed. The present electronic fog signal dates from 1974.
In 1929, the Southeast Light was changed to a flashing green light to differentiate it from other lights in the vicinity. A new lens was installed with flash panels; it appears that this lens was made up of pieces "cannibalized" from earlier lenses. A mercury float assembly was added for the revolving lens. This system had replaced bearing and "chariot-wheel" assemblies in many lighthouses beginning in 1890.
The hurricane of September 21, 1938, New England's worst ever, did tremendous damage to the lighthouse and grounds. The radio beacon was knocked over, the oil house was demolished, windows were blown out, and all power was lost. The keepers had to turn the lens by hand for several days.
By the early '90s, 115 years of erosion had put the lighthouse on the endangered list. The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as one of America's 11 most endangered structures of historic significance. The building, once over 300 feet from the edge of the bluff, was then only 55 feet from the brink.
A dedicated group of volunteers, the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse Foundation, managed to raise about $2 million in federal and private funds to pay for the lighthouse to be moved. In August 1993, International Chimney Company of Buffalo, New York, and Expert House Movers, Inc. of Virginia, moved the historic structure to its present location about 300 feet from the bluff.
The first-order lens had to be removed because it rested on a potentially dangerous mercury bed.
It was later succeeded by another first-order lens that had originally been used at Cape Lookout Light in North Carolina. The restored light was relit on August 27, 1994.
New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Nearest Address: 121 Mohegan TRL, Block Island, RI
- From Ferry landing get onto Water St. then take a left onto Spring St.
- Follow Spring St. 1.6 miles to Southeast Point. There is parking on the left and the lighthouse is a short walk beyond that.
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