Point Judith Lighthouse, built under contract by Daniel S. Way, was a wooden tower equipped with a spider lamp that burned whale oil. The lighting apparatus rotated on a copper platform that was designed to block out the light briefly every two-and-a-half minutes. A powerful hurricane, known as the Great Gale of September 1815, toppled the wooden tower and damaged several other lighthouses in the Northeast. The accompanying eleven-foot storm surge funneled by Narragansett Bay, destroying some 500 houses and flooding Providence, Rhode Island. John P. Whitford, the first keeper of the lighthouse, survived the hurricane, which claimed at least thirty-eight lives, though the keeper’s dwelling was damaged.
A replacement tower was constructed at the point in 1816, after Congress provided $7,500 in April of that year. Built of rough granite blocks faced with courses of Connecticut freestone and coated by cement, the octagonal tower stood thirty-five feet tall and was placed in operation on November 16, 1816. The base of the tower was twenty feet wide, tapering to nine feet at the lantern level. Winslow Lewis designed the optic first used in the lantern – ten lamps equipped with eight-and-a-half-inch reflectors and green convex lenses and powered by whale oil. The lamps were divided into two clusters of five, which were set upon two copper tables and revolved by the rotating mechanism salvaged from the old tower. The rotating mechanism consisted of a 228-pound weight attached to a rope that was wound around a horizontal barrel, which was connected to a spindle, on which the lamp tables were mounted, by a wheel and pinion.
An interesting side note is that, according to an 1818 report written by the superintendent of lighthouses for Rhode Island, many of the lighting apparatuses stolen from American lighthouses by the British during the War of 1812 ended up in Bermuda. Through intermediaries, some of those lights ended up in the hands of Winslow Lewis, who reinstalled at least two of them right back into American lighthouses – at Point Judith and at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard.
The early keeper’s dwelling at Point Judith only had one bedroom, located in the attic, and the keeper and his family reportedly slept in the kitchen during the winter to keep warm. Major repairs and upgrades were applied to both the tower and the keeper’s dwelling in 1837, and the resulting seven-room residence provided a much more accommodating space for the keeper.
In 1857, a new Point Judith Lighthouse, an octagonal brownstone tower rising sixty-five feet above the water, was constructed, and a new brick dwelling was erected for the keeper and attached to the new tower for convenience of access. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room and produced a light visible up to sixteen miles at sea. The light’s characteristic was to occult once every fifteen seconds. A stone arch form the second tower that is inscribed with William Ellery, the local customs collector, and 1816, the years of its construction, was placed on the east wall of the new tower, just above the first floor window opening.
The waters off Point Judith were a major route for ship traffic going between various New England ports and New York. By the early 1870s, mariners were formally requesting that the foghorn at Point Judith be changed to a fog whistle, saying that the old signal, an 1867 third-class Daboll trumpet sounded by a Wilcox caloric engine, was often drowned out by the pounding surf. After Congress provided $5,000, a first-class steam siren was installed at Point Judith, but ships continued to become stranded at the point.
A New York Times article in August 1889 noted that veteran lighthouse keeper Capt. “Joe” Whaley had just severed his connection with the station at Point Judith after twenty-seven years and three months of service. The Sunday prior to his retirement, over 275 people and 70 wagons had visited the lighthouse and fog sirens. It wasn’t the throngs of visitors that prompted his decision to retire but rather 375 hours of incessant fog during May and June. Henry A. Whaley, who had been serving as assistant keeper for thirteen years, succeeded his father and remained at Point Judith until 1910.
Over the years, even with the presence of a light and fog signal at Point Judith, many ships have met their end on its shoals. A partial list includes the Normandy (1864), American Eagle (1870), Acusionet (1870), Venus (1877), Cucktoo (1882), Harry Barry (1888), Anita (1888), Mars (1892), Blue Jay (1896), Amanda E. (1902), and the Comet (1973), among many others. In 1855 alone, at least sixteen ships either ran aground or were wrecked within sight of the light station.
Perhaps this casualty list shouldn’t be too surprising, given the amount of ship traffic in the area – in 1907, lighthouse personnel counted 22,860 ships passing by during daylight hours. This was four times the number of vessels entering New York Harbor that same year. In 1906, a bill was introduced in Congress to station a lightship offshore from Point Judith, in addition to the lighthouse. The proposal was dropped two years later in the face of opposition from the Lighthouse Board, which insisted that the lighthouse was sufficient.
As an additional aid to mariners during periods of limited visibility, a class C radiobeacon was established at Point Judith in November 1931. This was the first radiobeacon to be established at a Rhode Island lighthouse. The two sixty-foot towers used to transmit the radio signal were taken down in 1974, after they were deemed unsafe.
Various changes and additions were made to the station over the years. The present lantern room was installed in 1869, and in the spring of 1899, the top half of the tower was painted brown to give the lighthouse a distinctive daymark. A new fixed, fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in operation on January 2, 1907, likely replacing a revolving lens of the same order. A brick oil house was added in 1917, and the still-standing, hip-roofed fog signal building was built in 1923. The Coast Guard building that stands today near the lighthouse was constructed in 1937, replacing an earlier lifesaving station. Point Judith Light Station was automated in 1954, and the keeper’s house was torn down that same year.
In 2000, the lighthouse underwent its first major renovation in over a century. A temporary beacon was put in place while the lantern room and Fresnel lens were removed for refurbishment. Some of the original brownstone blocks had to be replaced during the restoration effort that lasted four months.
Point Judith Lighthouse was selected as one of five lighthouses to appear in 2013 on a set of stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service called “New England Coastal Lighthouses.” The stamps are part of a series that has covered lighthouses in different regions of the country. An unveiling ceremony was held at each of the five featured lighthouses on July 13, 2013.
Point Judith Lighthouse is located on what is now Point Judith Coast Guard Station. In addition to maintaining the lighthouse, the coastguardsmen on duty serve in search and rescue operations and law enforcement. The lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation and still uses a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The lighthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.