The rhythm of waves, breaking on the rocky sea wall welcomes visitors to the bluff at Watch Hill. Gazing out over the coastal Atlantic waters, Block Island and Montauk stand at a distance; four nautical miles to the west, the tip of Fishers Island come into view. To the northwest, Stonington Harbor marks the entry to state of Connecticut. At sunset, f rom this same vantage point, the breaking waters sparkle in shades of gold while shorebirds set out to their nightly roosts.
In 1794, local mariners petitioned the Collector of Customs at Providence, for the establishment of a lighthouse at Watch Hill Point. Gangway Rock, just 650 feet off the point, and the rock reef a half mile south, were among those posing serious navigational hazards. The passage into Fishers Island Sound with other obstructions, was especially dangerous during a rip tide. But the American Revolutionary War delayed any chance of building a lighthouse. In 1807, $6,000 was appropriated by Congress the for land and construction of a beacon. By mid- February of the following year, a 35-feet wood frame octagonal tower had been erected, along with an adjacent 5-room keepers dwelling. Its lantern was equipped with 10 whale-oil lamps. To produce a flashing pattern, two small iron frames were installed that revolved around the lamps by means of a clockwork mechanism. Unfortunately, they frequently malfunctioned. When not eclipsing, it was difficult, at a distance, for navigators to distinguish Watch Hill’s beacon from the nearby Stonington Harbor’s stationary white light (first lit in 1840).
Watch Hill Light’s first keeper, Jonathan Nash, had a salary of $200 per month. The facility was furnished with a fresh water well and the family was able to provide food for themselves by farming some of the four and a half acres surrounding the site. The keeper remained on duty there for 27 years. During his tenure, he reported 45 shipwrecks in the vicinity of the station. The area’s treacherous seas would claim many other vessels, often two or more per year. Within hours of each other in August of 1857, two ships met their fate on nearby rocks. Storms and shipwrecks would become very much part of Watch Hill’s history.
Congress appropriated $8,500 in 1855, for a new lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling at Watch Hill. Built of granite obtained from local quarries, the tower rose to the height of 45 feet. The inside walls of the structure were lined with brick. A cast-iron spiral stairway led to the lantern. The new beacon, showing a fixed white light, was equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The new two-story, three-bedroom keeper’s dwelling was constructed of brick.
In December of 1839, three consecutive northeasters struck Watch Hill. Windows rattled furiously while sand, rocks and ocean debris spread across the station’s entire property. Over the next decade, storms caused several shipwrecks in sight of the lighthouse, apparently without any major loss of life. But that would soon change in August of 1872. Having set out from New York in the late afternoon, the 200-foot long propeller driven wooden steamer Metis was bound for Providence with 110 passengers and a crew of 45. As she sailed through Long Island Sound, she began to encounter an increasingly stronger gale with huge waves and driving rain. Travelling at about 12 knots, the steamer’s lookout barely managed to spot Watch Hill’s beacon. A short time later, with the area still cloaked in poor visibility, the 91-ton schooner Nettie Cushing suddenly emerged from the storm and ran directly into the Metis’ bow, striking its starboard side. Believing that there was only minor damage to the Metis, the captain of the heavily damaged schooner immediately headed for New London; she barely made it into port. Though Captain Burton of the Metis felt that, despite the damage to his vessel, they could make it to Providence, he was quickly proven wrong. They began taking on a great deal of water. The captain then ordered his vessel toward Watch Hill. Once there, he hoped to beach the seriously wounded vessel, but waters rushing into the hull soon extinguish the boilers. During that time, about 50 passengers had taken refuge on the ship’s hurricane deck; it would prove to be a life saver for some of them. As the steamer began to sink, the deck broke away, creating a raft that carried them toward the coast. Included aboard the raft was Captain Burton.
In the early morning light, survivors were spotted from shore. A lifeboat was launched from the lighthouse while some local residents waded into the heavy waves to aid in the rescue. Through their efforts and that of others, 85 people were saved from the disaster. Nine of the heroic rescuers were later singled out for gold medal awards. The wreck lies some 4.5 nautical miles ESE of Watch Hill, at a depth of 130 feet. The steam engine, boiler, prop shaft and prop are still intact, with some remnants of its wooden hull.
In 1879, a US Life Saving Service facility, a forerunner of the US Coast Guard rescue services, was established at Watch Hill. Eventually, nine of the stations, including three on Block Island, were set up along the Rhode Island coast. From 1843 to 1895, the surfmen, as they were called, assisted in 54 coastal rescues just off Watch Hill. Again, from 1903 to 1939, 45 other wrecks occurred in the vicinity of the lighthouse.
On the night of February 11, 1907, another dreadful marine disaster occurred off the coast of Watch Hill. Sailing overnight from Providence to New York, the side-wheel steamer Larchmont, with some 200 persons on board, encountered northeast-force winds as she navigated Block Island Sound. At about 10:30 pm, the Larchmont’s bow watchman spotted the lights of an approaching vessel. The three-masted coal schooner Harry Knowlton, seemed to be at a safe distance, but it then emerged from the churning seas and ran directly in the Larchmont’s port side. In less than 15 minutes, the steamer went to the bottom with many of its passengers, reportedly still in their bunks. It is estimated that 158 persons were lost and 17 to 20 were saved. Out of sight of the Life Saving Stations at Watch Hill and Block Island, there was no response from their personnel. The schooner’s crewmen managed to make it to Block Island aboard their lifeboats. The wreck of the Larchmont lies broken up in about 130 feet, some 3 miles east of Watch Hill.
In the late afternoon of September 21, 1938, Watch Hill added a violent hurricane to its history. A storm surge, estimated to have been up to 50 feet, struck the area. It washed away 40 homes from neighboring Napatree Point! One family, who had retreated to their attic, experienced the ride of their lives when the attic tore away from their house. But though they were carried two miles inland to a Connecticut cornfield, they survived their ordeal. From that rime on, reconstruction of residences along the barrier beach was no longer allowed. Napatree Point now serves as beautiful wildlife refuge.
During the hurricane of 1938, waves broke over the top of the lighthouse, smashing windows in the lantern. The beacon itself was damaged, putting it out of commission for a few weeks. Luckily however, the two keepers stationed there with their families, weathered the storm.
From its earliest history, Watch Hill had served as a prime site for a lookout and navigational beacon. In 1745, the Colony had erected a tall pole from which a bucket was hung, filled with some sort of flammable material. During the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War, the signal is believed to have functioned mainly as a warning signal for the area’s settlers.
During WWI and WWII, personnel served as lookouts for U-Boats and other enemy activity off the coast of Watch Hill. During the Second World War, a concrete watch tower and pillbox, no longer in existence, were erected northeast of the lighthouse. The lookout tower closely resembled those still standing on the coast of Delaware. The lighthouse continued be maned until 1986, when it was automated. Coast Guardsman Tony Mehot was its last keeper, but the Watch Hill Light continues to operate as a navigational aid.
The lighthouse and its museum, which has on display the station’s original fourth-order Fresnel lens, along with documents and photos of Watch Hill’s history, are under the care of the Watch Hill Lightkeepers Association. The lighthouse grounds can be accessed year-round from 8:00 am to sunset. Manned by well-informed volunteers, the museum is open from 1 to 3 pm, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, from July through Labor Day. Be sure to check out their website: https://www.watchhilllighthousekeepers.org/ Parking for beach access at Napatree, is at the end of Fort Road in Westerly.