From the Author: Our family has been taking week-long vacations on Block Island for 5+ years. We love this island and know it well. If you have any questions, we respond quickly to comments!
Block Island is home to two historic lighthouses: Southeast Lighthouse and North Light.
One sits a top the Block Island Bluffs, and the other all alone, at the tip of Sandy’s Point.
Both are beautiful in-person, and worth visiting if you have the time.
But these lighthouses aren’t just for show – there have been so many ship wrecks off of the Block Island over the years that Block Island got the nickname of the “Stumbling Block of New England”!
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Southeast Lighthouse (“Beacon On the Bluff”)
The Southeast Lighthouse is by far the more popular of the two – my family and I visit it at least once a year.
It was built in 1874, making it one of the oldest lighthouses in New England.
Back then most of the lighthouses that were constructed were all about function – they never considered aesthetics at all.
So it was a bit of a marvel that the Southeast Lighthouse was built using a Gothic style.
Southeast Light sits on top of the Block Island Bluffs – where so many ship wrecks have happened that Block Island earned the nickname “The Stumbling Block of New England”.
Its location on the Bluffs also makes it the highest lighthouse in all of New England.
While breathtaking, the Bluffs have had their share problems – due to steady erosion of the Bluffs, the entire lighthouse had to be moved back hundreds of feet in 1993.
It took nearly 10 years of campaigning, and 3 separate Acts of Congress to make it happen.
Over 400 tones of steel and masonry were rolled down temporary tracks at just 4 inches a minute.
The entire operation lasted about 3 weeks and cost 2 million dollars.
Speaking of millions of dollars – the original Southeast Light used something called a “first order fresnel lens“.
This lens rotated in an open bed of Mercury, and was deemed too big a risk – it was a hazard to the public and needed to be replaced.
But the lens was originally made in France, and that type of glass/lens is no longer made.
Fortunately the Coast Guard was able to track down another fresnel lens, identical to the one originally placed in Southeast Light.
They brought the lens over to Block Island by ship, but first they had it insured for 3.5 million dollars!
In recent years Southeast light has undergone further restoration efforts, and a maritime history museum was added which opened to the public in 2021.
This beauty is only a mile from town/ferry, so make sure you check it out the next time you visit Block Island!
You can walk or bike – most of the journey is right along the coast.
Lighthouse Visitor Information
Restoration efforts are underway to convert some of the interior space of the lighthouse into a residential rental unit.
So some day soon you’ll be able to stay here overnight!
The income it produces will be used to help pay for, and maintain the lighthouse.
Block Island North Lighthouse (“North Light”)
Originally built in 1829, North Light has been completely demolished on three separate occasions during its first 38 years of existence.
Given its location, completely exposed on the north most point of Block Island, these earlier lighthouses were swept out to sea during storms and bad weather.
The lighthouse that stands today, the fourth lighthouse of its kind, was built further back from the point in 1867 with steel and Connecticut granite.
It’s stood there for over 150 years.
But even in recent times, the lighthouse has seen its ups and downs.
It was deactivated in 1973 and then eventually sold to the town of New Shoreham in 1984 for a dollar. The town renovated and then relit the lighthouse in 1989.
Further renovations took place in 2008 and it was relit once again in 2010.
You can access North Light by walking from the parking lot for about 15 – 20 minutes over unpacked sand.
It’s a fantastic walk, with beautiful sandy trails and gorgeous ocean views.
While there are no tours of the tower, a maritime museum occupies the first floor of the lighthouse and is open to the public during the summer.
Lighthouse Visitor Information
- Be on the look out for harbor seals during your walk out to North Light. They are everywhere! We spotted about a dozen when we went. Our son Declan loved them!
- If you’re into running or biking, North Light is the perfect place to visit. Corn Neck Rd. is one of the longest roads on the island and has runners and bikers going up and down it all day long.
My family and I have been visiting Block Island every Summer for over 5 years now, and we still make time to visit a lighthouse or two while we’re here.
As I get older, I’ve come to really appreciate the history of these incredible structures and the many ships, and lives they’ve saved.
My kids are just interested in the harbor seals and the ice cream we get after, but that’s OK too.