Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2011

Access and Storms Complicated Building and Later Restoration of Sakonnet Light

By Timothy Harrison


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Resting on a rock at the mouth of the Sakonnet River near Little Compton, Rhode Island the Sakonnet Lighthouse could be called the “Lighthouse of Many Lives.”

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The fact that the lighthouse is still standing today is a testament to the people who started building the caisson-style structure in 1883. Waves and severe weather hampered and delayed the construction of the tower until it was finally lighted for the first time on November 1, 1884.

The tower, called a sparkplug light, because its style resembled an automobile sparkplug, suffered from massive waves hitting the structure during every severe storm that hit the area. The turn-over of lighthouse keepers was high. One keeper was quoted as saying, “you could drop dead in the lighthouse in the winter and no one would know till spring.”

In the 1938 hurricane, which devastated many parts of New England, two separate tidal waves washed over the lighthouse, but each time it withstood the fury of Mother Nature. But it was the force of Hurricane Carol in 1954 that many thought was the fatal blow to the lighthouse. The damage was so severe that the Coast Guard deactivated the lighthouse and made plans to dynamite what they stated was a lighthouse that was too expensive to repair.

However local residents protested and the lighthouse was spared the wrecking ball. By 1961, the lighthouse was in private ownership where it would remain for 24 years until it was gifted to the Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse who embarked on the long task of trying to save the lighthouse. They dug out pigeon guano that was two feet deep, sandblasted the lighthouse, gave it a fresh coat of paint, and did other repairs. That effort earned them the right to relight the lighthouse in 1996.

But that was just the beginning. The lighthouse itself still needed to be restored and that could not happen until money could be raised. But the Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse were persistent in their efforts, raising $1 million to save the lighthouse with $844,000 coming by way of a Rhode Island Department of Transportation grant. The balance was raised by the group.

The money came just in the nick of time. Engineers said rust at the lighthouse had expanded to such an extent that the there was nearly nothing left holding the lighthouse together and the interior of the structure was deteriorating at rapid pace.

But the restoration crews faced the same problems of those who built the lighthouse back in the 1800s. Every project was challenging and often posed dangers to the men and equipment, especially when Hurricane Irene swept through the area and waves engulfed the lighthouse and scaffolding surrounding it.

The photos shown here, courtesy of David Osborn and A. Michael Steers, need no explanation but clearly show the immense project that was undertaken to renovate this historic lighthouse. The people of Rhode Island and the Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse are to be congratulated for the tenacity to see this project through to save this lighthouse for future generations. However, they are still short on funds to fully complete the project and provide continued maintenance to the lighthouse. Donations can be sent to Friends of Sakonnet Lighthouse, P.O. Box 154, Little Compton, RI 02837 or on-line at www.sakonnetlighthouse.org.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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