This week we're back in Narragansett Bay on Prudence Island, the third largest island in the bay. The 7-mile long, 2-mile wide island was originally settled in the 17th century as a farming community. Shortly before the Revolutionary War, the island served as a crucial point in mail service across Rhode Island. Long before the Mt. Hope and Pell Bridges were built, mail was taken by ferry from Providence to Prudence Island, south down the island on horseback, and then from ferry to Aquidneck Island.
There were around 30 small farms and 85 residents on the island in the mid-18th century. By 1930, the island had transformed from farming community to a summer vacation hub. The summer residents would reach 500, with about 55 staying through the winter. But enough about the island--we'll circle back to its development later.
If you've read my previous blogs, then you've seen the Prudence Island Lighthouse before. The 28-foot lighthouse that now stands on the island was the original Goat Island Light, just south in Narragansett Bay. The lighthouse was first built in 1823 and relocated to Prudence Island on Sandy Point in 1851. The light had been abandoned on Goat Island after a new lighthouse was built further out in the water in 1838. It sat unused for more than a decade until a lighthouse was approved for construction on Prudence Island in 1850. It seemed economical to use a perfectly suitable yet unused lighthouse further south in the bay.
In 1951, the old Goat Island light was carefully numbered and dismantled; and then reassembled on Prudence Island. The original lantern was also reused. The total cost for the relocation was just $900 and the contract was awarded to Horace Vaugh. The cost of the 1-acre parcel of land on the island was $250. The lighthouse was outfitted with a Winslow Lewis light apparatus, which consisted of 6 oil lamps and 6 14-inch reflectors. It was first lit in its new location on January 17, 1852. The tapered, octagonal tower has always been painted white and consists of 10 courses of smooth-cut granite blocks. The birdcage black lantern has 35 panes of glass, arranged in 3 rows. The name birdcage comes from all of the cast iron needed to hold these panes in place. Three years later, the lamp apparatus was replaced by a Fifth Order Fresnel lens with a white light.
When the lighthouse was rebuilt, a one-and-a-half-story frame building was constructed 200 feet west inland of the light to serve as the keeper's house. The clapboard structure was connected to the light by a raised wooden boardwalk. A fog bell with a wooden frame was also built nearby.
Half a century later, the government purchased an adjacent 1 1/2 acre lot to expand the lighthouse grounds. In 1909, a plan was produced to construct a garden, chicken house, shed, oil house, barn, and boathouse; all in addition to the existing lighthouse, keeper's house, and bell. In 1924, the lighthouse was fitted with a weight-activated rotation mechanism, changing the characteristic from continuous white to flashing white.
Tragedy struck in 1938 when a hurricane, now known as the Great New England Hurricane, blasted the island. The hurricane first made landfall on Long Island and traveled northeast up the coast across New England. Some estimates place the death toll as high as 800 people and 19,000 buildings were lost. In Charlestown, Rhode Island 160 of 200 homes were destroyed.
Prudence Island fared no differently. The keeper's house was swept out into the bay with the keeper, his family, and guests still inside. The keeper was fortunate enough to make it back to shore, but the 5 other occupants (including the keeper's wife, their son, 2 islanders, and a former keeper) all drowned at sea. Throughout Rhode Island, 400 people were killed by the hurricane, including the Whale Rock Lighthouse keeper further south in the bay. The lighthouse, which used to be just southwest of Beavertail Lighthouse, was completely washed away with the keeper inside.
The lighthouse somehow was relatively undamaged by the storm, at least compared to the destruction nearby. The sand beneath the foundation shifted and the windows in the lantern were blown out, but the light still stood when it was all over. Instead of rebuilding the keeper's house, the lighthouse was electrified in 1939. A 6-by-9-foot engine cement room was added to the west side lighthouse.
After 1938, instead of stationing another keeper at the light, it was looked after by the island residents. During the Second World War, Prudence Island was used as a military camp and ammunition storage. Light artillery was kept there and a Naval Magazine was constructed in 1942. More than 30 storage bunkers were built for easy loading onto ships. The base was abandoned in 1947 and the Navy turned the land over to the State of Rhode Island in 1972. In 1980, the land was designated, along with Patience, Hope, and Dyer Islands, as a 1 of only 30 National Estuarine Research Reserve. (Estuarine refers to a transitional environment where marine and freshwater mixes.) The reserve operates under the moniker Narragansett Bay Research Reserve and manages more than 60% of the island.
Despite the large summer resident population and naval occupation mid-century, Prudence Island has never developed to the extent of neighboring islands and coastal towns. A bridge was never built from the mainland or from the Bristol peninsula or Aquidneck Island. Residents have also actively discouraged development in favor of a more peaceful environment. The island is part of the town of Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island and has never been incorporated on its own.
Throughout all this change, Sandy Point Light has witnessed it all. The lighthouse has the distinction of being the oldest surviving lighthouse in Rhode Island. It is also unique in that it has been an active light station in two different locations. Its 3rd claim to fame is that it still retains its original birdcage lantern. Most early-style birdcage lanterns have been replaced with the more common octagonal lantern.
Historic structures are not usually eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places if they have been relocated. However, since Prudence Island Light was/is an active lighthouse on two Rhode Island islands in Narragansett Bay, it has served a continuous purpose and retained its original character and setting since it was built. The lighthouse was added to the National Register in 1988 and the official period of significance for the structure is from 1851-1938.
Today, Prudence Island Light, known to the locals as Sandy Point Light, has a Fourth Order Fresnel lens with a range of 9 miles. It produces a green light and flashes every 6 seconds. The fog horns blasts every 15 seconds. In 2020, the USCG declared the lighthouse "surplus" and listed the light and 2-acre lot for sale. While it might sound unusual, this process is not uncommon. The USCG has an enormous task of maintaining hundreds of light stations across the US, and a relatively easy way to alleviate that strain is to divest lighthouse care to nonprofits and communities through licensing agreements. The Prudence Island Light had been maintained by the Prudence Island Conservancy since 2001, and the agreement was set to expire in 2021. Today, the lighthouse is unwatched.
When you visit, it's a quick 30 minute ferry from Bristol. There are about 80 homes on Prudence Island, only half occupied year round. There are no hotels, restaurants, or cafes on the island, so best go prepared with food and water.
Peleg Sherman (1852-1853)
Henry Dimond (1853-1855)
Edward Spooner (1855-1862)
Thomas J. Cory (1862-1875)
Isaac Aldrich (1875-1886)
John T. Clark (1886-1887)
Olney Coyle (1887-1888)
John Follet (1888-1894)
Thomas Burke (1894-1898)
Nathaniel Dodge (1898-1905)
Martin Thompson (1905-1933)
Elmer Newton (1933-1937)
George Gustavus (1937-1938)
Island Residents (1938-1961)