Pomham Rocks Lighthouse History

The History of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse

              Pomham Rocks is the name for a small, half acre island located on the Providence River about 800 feet from the shore in the Riverside section of East Providence Rhode Island. Pomham Rocks was selected as the site for a navigational aid due to an increase in shipping traffic heading towards Providence in the first half of the nineteenth century. 

      A pyramidal daymark was erected around 1828 (Picture at left), which proved to be inadequate. On July 15, 1870 Congress appropriated $20,000 for the construction of three lights on the Providence River: Pomham Rocks, Sassafras Point and Fuller Rock.   

            Designed by Albert Dow in a French Empire mansard style, Pomham Rocks Lighthouse has seven rooms and a 42 foot tower. The lighthouse was built orginally with a large store room behind it, an outhosue/privy and hen house toward the back end of the island. A dock an boat house were constructed in 1873 at the cost of $1,200. The light was first lit on December 1, 1871 with a sixth order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light. This characteristic was changed to fixed red on October 1, 1872. The first Lighthouse keeper, C H Salisbury, stayed for 22 years (1871-1893). Following his death in 1893, his wife, Mary, took over until the arrival of his replacement. Nathaniel Dodge replaced Mary in November of 1893 and served until the arrival of Thomas Fishburn in 1898 after having been stationed at Sakonnet Point and Conimicut Point lights. Little else is known about either of these men.

Pomham

              A continuous fog siren was installed in 1900 and residents complained of its noise. The continuous horn was changed to a three-second blast at 12 -second intervals on June 15, 1901 after residents complained of its noise. One year later a fog bell replaced it. The fog bell was operated by a hand-wound mechanism. Winding the mechanism raised the weights to the top of the bell tower and has the weights fell they drove the hammer that struck the bell at defined intervals. The tower and bell was completed in 1902 and went into service on October 1, 1902. In 1929 a new bell was installed and it weight 1000 lbs (1929 Bell pictured at right). replacing the old one, which weighted 300 lbs.

              The next keeper (1908-1937) Adolph Aronson came to Pomham with his wife Nellie and their three children, Marjorie, Raymond and Elmer after an assignment on the Hog Island Lightship. During Keeper Aronson's stay, the light's fuel was changed from oil to incandescent oil vapor, with 480 candle power and the potential of being seen from a distance of 12 miles. Incandescent oil vapor lamps use air pressure and fuel vaporizer tubes where the kerosene is preheated into a fine gas vapor before being ignited.  This dramatically increases oxygen at the flame and provides a brighter light using less fuel.

              Keeper William Howard (1937-1951) moved to the island with his wife and teenage son. He is credited with the rescue of a man and four boys from an overturned boat. He also saved four men in a disabled motorized craft drifting towards some rocks. The great New England Hurricane of 1938 struck during his tenure. Unlike nearby Bullocks Pont Lighthouse which was completely destroyed, only the Pomham dock sustained serious damage.

Pomham

              The original sixth order lens was replaced with a fourth order lens in 1935 (Shown at left). The light's optic weighted about 300 pounds. It was a multi-prism lens about two feet tall, which magnified the light and sent out a red signal.

             The last civilian keeper, Howard Beebe, came to Pomham in 1953 from New London Ledge and Block Island North and stayed until 1956. By this time the station's boat was motorized which cut the trip to shore to about a minute in good conditions. Water came from a cistern by way of a hand pump in the kitchen. There was no bathroom. A small windmill charged a battery, which supplied electricity to a radio. Kerosene powered the household lighting and the refrigerator and stove.  Beebe retired in 1956 and was replaced by a crew from the US Coast Guard.

            After the Coast Guard assumed duties at the lighthouse in 1956 electricity finally came to the island via a cable from shore. While there were now toilets on the island they still had to be flushed manually with buckets of water. By 1974, the kitchen was renovated, the bedrooms were colorfully painted and the now-paneled living room had television and comfortable couches and chairs all 1970s style.

Pomham

            In spring of 1974, the Coast Guard relocated the navigational light from the tower to the top of a newly erected skeleton tower located next to the lighthouse. The fog signal house was demolished in May of 1974 and the bell was removed in June of 1974 in preparation of the skeleton tower. In June the house was decommissioned. The picture on the left shows the decommissioning taking place with Dennis Tardiff, the last of the Coast Guard Keepers, lowering the flag. The fourth order Fresnel lens was removed in June 1974 and is currently on display at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass (Picture of exact lens is seen above).

           After the removal of the live-in crew it was feared vandals would damage the buildings on the island.  The Rhode Island Historical Society, which had been given a license to sponsor a local family, began to look for a tenant. Godfrey Allen, a member of the Society, suggested that his daughter and son-in-law be offered the chance to live in the lighthouse. Susan & Bob Charbonneau moved into the house with their children Robby and Amy. They stayed until late 1975 when a house they had  wanted became available and they moved ashore. 

           Susan Charbonneau’s brother, 26-year-old Stephen Allen, became the new caretaker in 1976. Stephen worked during the day at his father's boat yard and returned to the lighthouse each evening. He performed minor repairs to the building and fought a constant battle to keep the furnace running. He remained on the island until 1978.

         In 1978 the General Services Administration declared the property surplus federal property. Plans for its sale were completed in 1980 and it was put out to bid. A high bid of $40,100 gave Mobil Oil Corporation ownership of the lighthouse and the islands of Pomham Rocks and nearby Ruth. With the islands located so near to its terminal the company wanted ownership of the property “to preserve the continuity of the waterfront area.”

         In 2000 Exxon Mobil Corp was approached by local citizens regarding the possibility of a partnership to restore the lighthouse to its 1871 condition. Under the leadership of Donald Doucette the American Lighthouse Foundation was approached and together they organized a group called Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse. In December 2004 Exxon Mobil leased the lighthouse and island to ALF at no cost and, to help jump start fundraising for the exterior restoration, presented the organization with an initial donation of $25,000. After a two-year fundraising campaign Abcore Restoration Company was contracted to restore the exterior of the lighthouse. When the project neared completion the Coast Guard was contacted with a request to return a light to the lantern room and restore the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation. In May 2006 a relighting ceremony was held at the campus of Save The Bay, located across the Providence River from the lighthouse. Attended by local and national representatives, officials from the American Lighthouse Foundation and members of Friends of Pomham Rocks lighthouse, the light was shining brightly after having been dark for 32 years. In 2010 Exxon Mobil transferred ownership of the island and its buildings by donating them to the American Lighthouse Foundation. In January of 2016, The Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission awarded Pomham Rocks Lighthouse $150,000, which will be a major help with the restoration with the interior. 

Pomham

        Work has continued on various projects on the island including new docking facilities, oil house restoration, new fencing and restored windows in the lighthouse itself. On October 17, 2016 work began at the lighthouse to return electricity to the island. A trench was dug from the lighthouse down to the dock where PVC piping was played. On October 20, 2016 the electric cable was pulled through the piping and into the lighthouse cellar and then laid across the bay to the Riverside shore and was connected on Exxon Mobile’s property. On January 20, 2017, Adam Dias, Alex Dias, Joe Estrella and Dennis Tardiff went out to the lighthouse and turned on the portable heaters that were recently installed. After 37 years, electricity was brought back to the lighthouse and with it came heat, which will prevent the further deterioration of the interior. After years of hard work and fundraising the Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse raised $301,000 to make this become a reality. The group is now seeking funds to complete the final stage in the restoration of the lighthouse, which will conclude with the restoration of the interior and then opening the lighthouse to the public. Your donations are graciously appreciated.  

  List of Pomham’s Keepers

1871 - 1893:      C H & Mary Salisbury
1893 - 1898:      Nathaniel Dodge
1898 - 1908:      Thomas Fishburne
1908 - 1937:      Adolph & Nellie Aronson
1937 - 1951:      William J Howard
1951 - 1956:      Howard B Beebe


Coast Guard Keepers

July 1961 - June 1963:                   Phil Malouin
October 1964  – June 1966:          Roger J. Perreault
1972 – 1973:                                  Daniel Bertrami  
1971 – 1972:                                  Frank O'Neill
1972 – 1973:                                  Bernadino Fortunato       
1973 – 1974:                                  Jerome Murray   
1971 – June 5, 1974:                     Dennis Tardiff




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© Pomham Rocks Lighthouse 2017