Rising like a giant gingerbread house above the forbidding Mohegan Bluffs, Southeast Light stands, as its name implies, on the southeast corner of Block Island. The red brick structure is the only remaining Victorian Gothic style lighthouse in America and is one of the most architecturally elaborate lights ever built by the U.S. Lighthouse Board. The lighthouse has been in continuous operation since 1875.
Construction of the lighthouse was prompted by the dramatic increase in maritime traffic around the island during the 19th century due to its location in the middle of trade routes between New York and Boston. With the advent of steam powered vessels, the already notoriously hazardous waters around Block Island became particularly dangerous. In 1858, after the steamship Palmetto foundered and sank off the southern coast of the island, an island resident, Nicholas Ball, began a campaign to lobby Congress for funds to construct the light. In 1872, Congress appropriated $75,000 for the project and construction of the lighthouse was completed in 1874. On February 1, 1875, Southeast Light began operations as one of finest and best equipped lighthouses in the country. The lighthouse quickly became a tourist attraction, drawing many admiring visitors, among them President Ulysses S. Grant.
The octagon shaped tower rises 67 feet above the ground and is equipped with a 1000 watt electric lamp surrounded by eight Fresnel prism lens panels which emits a light with a range of twenty two miles (still one of the most powerful lights on the east coast). From its position atop the bluffs, Southeast Light stands some 200 feet above sea level.
When it opened, Southeast Light was a comfortable 300 feet back from the edge of the Mohegan Bluffs. However, decades of erosion steadily brought the precipice closer and closer to the lighthouse. One hundred years after it opened, Southeast Light stood only 75 feet from the edge, and the conclusion was that the lighthouse inevitably would fall over the bluffs. By 1993, the lighthouse was 55 feet away from the edge and disaster seemed imminent. However, thanks largely to a ten year fundraising effort by the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation, in August 1993, the entire 2000 ton lighthouse was hydraulically lifted off its foundation and moved on metal rails back to a new location, once again placing it 300 feet from the edge of the bluffs. It is estimated that the current location will withstand another 100 years of erosion before Southeast Light will again be in peril of tumbling into the sea.
Know Before You Go
Block Island can be reached by ferry from Point Judith, Rhode Island, New London, Connecticut, and Montauk, New York.