Sakonnet Light Station, Little Compton Rhode Island

Date added: December 20, 2023 Categories: Rhode Island Lighthouse
Aerial view of light station looking northeasterly (1951)

The impetus for the construction of Sakonnet Light Station came from a report filed by a Lighthouse Board inspector in March 1882 (perhaps in response to petitions from local residents or mariners, though no documentation to corroborate this has been discovered). The report stated that a light here would improve navigational safety, marking the mouth of the Sakonnet River as a harbor of refuge for coasting vessels during storms, and serving as an aid to navigation along a long, then-unlighted stretch of coastline. The Lighthouse Board's Committee on Location concurred, reporting that "...the interests of commerce and navigation require the establishment of a light at the locality in question..." (i.e. at or near Sakonnet Point). The inspector's report recommended that the proposed light be sited on West Island, but when members of a private club occupying the island expressed their disapproval of the scheme, it was decided to build the lighthouse on Little Cormorant Rock, about 900 feet northwest of West Island. Funding for Sakonnet Light was appropriated by Congress on 7 August 1882. Little Cormorant Rock was ceded to the federal government by the State of Rhode Island on 15 March 1883.

The caisson foundation was put up before the onset of winter forced suspension of work, and the tower itself was erected and finished in 1884. The light was first shown on 1 November 1884. The inaccessible, exposed site of the station necessitated special arrangements for the transportation and support of materials and laborers, and the structure is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of the men involved in its erection. The light was established during a period of tremendous growth for the Lighthouse Board. The number of lights nationwide increased from 297 in 1850 to 661 in 1880 and 1397 in 1910, an expansion greatly aided by the development and use of the standardized, prefabricated cast-iron tower. Sakonnet Light is a representative example of this structural type, which played a pivotal role in the evolution of the country's lighthouse system, and is a notable survivor from the system's era of greatest growth.

Sakonnet Light operated until it was disabled by the hurricanes of 1954. At that time the Coast Guard decided not to repair it, since additional aids to navigation in the area, including a light on the Sakonnet Breakwater and other beacons and a whistle buoy at the river entrance, had rendered the old light unnecessary. Coast Guard plans to demolish the light met with vociferous opposition from local residents. In 1956 the federal government offered to give the lighthouse to the town provided it remained unlighted, and the town voted to accept this offer. An editorial in the Fall River (Mass.) Herald News commended the town:

Too often landmarks or buildings which are of historic interest or importance are allowed to go into disuse and then disappear when the practical reasons for their maintenance has passed...

The sense of historic continuity on which it is now recognized a national culture depends for sustenance is based to a considerable extent on the links with the past old landmarks and buildings provide.

The town of Little Compton has averted this fate for at least one landmark by accepting the Sakonnet Point Light from the government...

The old structure will remain where it has always stood, and will, one hopes, serve as a picturesque reminder to generations yet to come of the way in which mariners were helped to safe harbor in the pre-mechanical age.

Misgivings concerning the responsibility and cost of maintenance subsequently deterred the town from taking the lighthouse. In 1961 the federal government sold the light station to Carl W. Haffenreffer, a part-time Little Compton resident interested in preserving the old structure. Since then the tower has been painted several times but it has become increasingly difficult over the years to engage contractors for maintenance work. Though the destructive effects of the weather pose a threat to Sakonnet Light, a concerted effort is now underway to find a means to repair and maintain the structure and identify a possible use that will ensure the preservation of this picturesque maritime landmark.

Site Description

Sakonnet Light Station, now deactivated and abandoned, is a standard "sparkplug" type lighthouse of prefabricated cast-iron construction, anchored by a caisson foundation to Little Cormorant Rock, an outcropping off Sakonnet Point on the eastern side of the mouth of the Sakonnet River. The combined height of the caisson and tower is about 66 feet from the surface of the rock to the top of the lantern. The four-story tower is in the form of a tapering cylinder, with a diameter of 22 feet at the base and 19 feet at the fourth-floor level. It is surmounted by a cylindrical watch room and a decagonal lantern. The fenestration of the tower is irregular, combining plain portlights and windows ornamented with heavily scaled cast-iron pediments. The tower and washroom are painted white and the caisson and metal portions of the lantern are painted black.

The caisson, 30 feet 5 inches in diameter, contains a basement room 18 feet in diameter with brick walls two feet thick. The exterior wall of the caisson is composed of 1½-inch-thick cast-iron plates and the 4-foot, 2½-inch cavity between these plates and the brick basement wall is filled with concrete. A gallery resting on top of the caisson surrounds the first story of the tower. The gallery has a reinforced concrete deck, iron posts, and an iron or steel roof. Steel-framed platforms with derricks for landing boats originally extended off the first-floor gallery in south-southeasterly and north-northwesterly directions, and a steel ladder at the northeast ran down to a concrete platform on the rock below. These have since been removed, making access to the tower nearly impossible. A 134-degree arc of the gallery on the southwesterly side of the tower is enclosed with steel plates pierced by portlights. This enclosure, painted white, once housed fog signal equipment. The tower, watch room, and lantern have exterior walls composed of 3/4-inch-thick cast-iron plates. Two segmental-arch entrances into the tower--one original and the other probably a later alteration--are located in the gallery enclosure. The tower has two windows and a portlight at the first-floor level and three windows each on the second- and third-floor levels, all irregularly spaced, and eight portlights spaced symmetrically around the perimeter of the fourth floor. The roof of the tower, projecting slightly beyond the walls with strut-like brackets supporting it, forms a gallery deck surrounding a 10-foot, 6-inch-diameter watch room. Part of the balustrade around the watch room gallery has rotted away but about 80 percent remains intact. The watch room is in turn topped by a roof deck gallery surrounding a lantern room about 7 feet, 8 inches in diameter. The lantern has ten vertical iron bars holding 4%-inch-thick glass plates measuring 36 by 27½ inches. It is capped with a polygonal conical roof topped by a ball finial.

On the interior, the basement within the caisson contains a brick-walled cistern for rainwater, a coal bin, and a boiler (now corroded) to supply heat and hot water. A toilet originally located here no longer remains. The interior walls of the first, second, and third floors are of brick; three, two, and one course thick respectively; with a cavity between the brick and the iron exterior wall. The fourth floor and watch room walls are faced with tongue-and-groove boards. A staircase with landings winds up from first to fourth floors along the curving wall of the tower, and ladders provide access from the fourth floor to the watch room and from the watch room to the lantern. The tower served as the keeper's and assistant's residence. The first floor was used as a kitchen and living area. The sink and the cabinets, minus their doors, remain but other fixtures have been removed. The second and third floors were used as bedrooms, and the fourth floor was divided into a bedroom and a tool room. The lantern originally contained a 4th-order lens fitted with an incandescent oil vapor lamp, but the light no longer operates and this apparatus has been removed.

The lighthouse, decommissioned by the Coast Guard in the late 1950s and sold into private ownership in 1961, has been abandoned for the past twenty-one years. It is currently in poor repair. The paint has peeled off much of the exterior wall surface and the exposed iron is rusted. There is one large crack in the iron plating of the caisson. The first-floor gallery has holes in the wall and roof and numerous cracks in its concrete deck, and a portion of the watch room gallery balustrade is missing. Inside, painted surfaces are peeling and the rooms are soiled with guano deposited by nesting birds, but the brick walls and tongue-and-groove sheathing are in remarkably good condition. In spite of the general deterioration, the lighthouse is structurally sound and could be repaired and restored.

Sakonnet Light Station, Little Compton Rhode Island Aerial view of light station looking northeasterly (1951)
Aerial view of light station looking northeasterly (1951)

Sakonnet Light Station, Little Compton Rhode Island Light station looking northerly (1942)
Light station looking northerly (1942)