Rhode Island’s Southeast Block Island is seven miles long and three miles wide. Surrounded by dangerous shoals it was known as the stumbling block of the New England Coast. Many ships went down off the island before the Rhode Island Southeast Block Island Lighthouse was built. There are two lighthouses on the island, the north light built in 1829 and the Rhode Island – Southeast Block Island Lighthouse built in 1875.
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Money was appropriated for the Southeast Block Island Lighthouse in 1856, but the lighthouse board decided to use the money to rebuild the north lighthouse instead and postponed construction of the southeast lighthouse indefinitely. In 1872 a concerned citizen named Nicholas Ball, circulated a petition asking for a lighthouse. In response, congress appropriated $75,000 to construct the lighthouse and a ten acre plot of land was purchased on Mohegan Bluff, overlooking the southeast coast of the island.
Designated as a primary seacoast aid to navigation, the lighthouse was equipped with the most powerful light available at that time. The Fresnel lens cost $10,000 by itself, a huge sum at that time. The light was first lit on February 1, 1875.
The keepers house was a 2 1/2 story brick duplex attached to the lighthouse tower. The lighthouse tower was topped with a sixteen sided Beacon. Fog signal experiments were conducted near the lighthouse in 1875. Mariner’s ability to hear the steam powered signal was tested. In 1906 a new fog signal was installed with kerosene engines. An electronic fog signal was installed in 1974.
In 1929, the light in the southeast lighthouse was changed to a flashing green light, so that mariners could differentiate it from other nearby lights. A new lens with flash panels was also installed at this time.
The worst hurricane ever experienced in New England heavily damaged the lighthouse in September of 1938. The keepers had to turn the lens for the light by hand for several days, until repairs could be completed.
The Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1990, replacing it with a steel tower. In the early 1990s the 115 year old lighthouse was listed as an endangered historic structure. The lighthouse had to be moved back from the edge of the cliff in 1993. The lighthouse was named a national historic landmark in 1997. The Block Island Lighthouse Foundation operates a small museum and conducts tours during the summer season. The foundation continues to raise money for the maintenance of the Rhode Island Southeast Block Island Lighthouse.