Tending a lighthouse was not always the romantic life that many people thought it was. This was especially true at towers that stood alone surrounded by water. With no space to call their own, the confines of a small offshore lighthouse could create tensions among some keepers. On occasion different personalities, disagreements, or alcohol could cause serious problems as happened on a hot summer evening on August14, 1897 at Rhode Island’s Whale Rock Lighthouse.
Apparently assistant keeper Henry Nygreen did not get along with the head keeper, Captain Judson G. Allen. It seems that Nygreen, a big powerful man, started drinking early in the day and almost at once started confrontational remarks against Allen, a situation that escalated into the evening hours.
When Allen went up the tower to attend to lighting the beacon he heard Nygreen behind him and looking back he saw that Nygreen was coming at him with a knife. Nygreen slashed at Allen causing a massive rip in his coat. Allen grasped the arm that held the knife, and the men rolled over and over on the floor. Finally the knife was knocked from Nygreen’s grasp and the two men struggled to regain control of it. Allen was nearly exhausted fighting with the much larger Nygreen when he was finally able to kick the knife down the spiral stairway of the tower. Nygreen immediately darted down the stairs to retrieve the knife.
In the meantime, Allen found a rope, and after securing it, threw it out and over the side and began to go down hand over hand. Nygreen appeared and hollered that he was going to cut the rope, but Allen had already lowered himself out of immediate danger. He quickly jumped into the station’s rowboat and started rowing away as fast as he could but as he did so, Nygreen fired two shots at him with the lighthouse rifle and then jumped into another boat and started rowing after Allen.
Capt. Allen’s hands were torn and bleeding but he still managed to reach shore before the stronger Nygreen did. Allen ran to a nearby house and finding no one at home seized a horse that he saw tied to a hitching post. As Allen rode off, Nygreen screamed at him that he was going back to the lighthouses and he would fight off anyone who tried to enter the tower.
The newspaper account of the incident stated that when Allen was treated by the doctor he was “badly used up” with two deep gash wounds in his forehead.
Local officials under the command of police officer Champlin went to the lighthouse and were somehow able to subdue Nygreen and take him off the lighthouse in irons.
So, as you can see, lighthouse keeping was not all the romance that many think it is. This was especially true here at Whale Rock Lighthouse. It seems, as well as this incident, the lighthouse was a cause of grief for the keepers who served there as sixteen of them came and went from 1882 to 1909. But the worst was yet to come. In the great hurricane of 1939, as the head keeper, Dan Sullivan, watched from shore, the lighthouse disappeared in the storm and claimed the life of assistant keeper Walter Eberle who was on duty at the time.
This story appeared in the
April 2007 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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