220630ind history

The Poplar Point Light was constructed in November 1831 and now, nearly 200 years later, is still stands as a reminder of WIckford’s heritage. According to local historian Tim Cranston, the structure is the oldest wooden lighthouse in America.

The month of March in 1831 was milestone marker for the little seaport village of Wickford. Events during that timeframe signified that the village was “on the map” in the maritime sense of the phrase.

You see by an act of the US Congress on March 3, 1831, the United States Bureau of Lighthouses appropriated $3,000 for a lighthouse “at or near the entrance to Wickford Harbor.” Of this sum, $300 went to a local, Thomas Albro, for the purchase of a parcel of land he owned out on Poplar Point. The same piece of land, indeed, that the members of the local militia, the Newtown Rangers and their famed cannon, The Wickford Gun, had used just 53 years earlier to defend the harbor from invasion by the British during the War of Independence.

Christopher Ellery of Newport, the regional Superintendent of Lighthouses, contracted for the construction of the light and dwelling house with local builder Charles Allen for $1,889, and Winslow Lewis of Boston was hired to install the eight wick lamps and their respective 14-inch reflectors up in the lighthouse tower, set 48 feet above mean low water. The whole business was accomplished by November of 1831, on time and under budget. Samuel Thomas Jr, a local lad, was hired as the first keeper at a salary of $350 per year.

Wickford Harbor truly was, by 1831, a busy enough place to warrant a lighthouse. Four separate shipyards run by the Holloways, Vaughans, MacKenzies, and Saunders clans were churning out sailing vessels at a regular clip. The harbor and wharves were alive with the hustle and bustle of a vibrant maritime and fishing industry. Folks were working; ships, barks, brigs, and schooners were coming and going. Sails furled and unfurled. Yes, Wickford Harbor was on the map indeed.

The Poplar Point Light continued to be a valuable asset into the 1870s as the steamers of the Newport & Wickford Rail & Steamship Line began to ferry the rich and famous and the “regular joe” alike back and forth to Newport. Soon after the steamer “Eolus” made her first run, the US government again gave a “thumbs up” for Wickford when the Eolus became a part of the primary mail route for mail in and out of Newport. The Eolus, unfortunately, and the steamers that followed it — the Tockwogh and the General — were a part of the eventual discontinuance of the Poplar Point Light. As these vessels ran more and more frequently, eventually adding night time runs, the Bureau of Lighthouses decided that a light which better defined the edge of the harbor’s narrow navigable channel was required and, in 1882, the Wickford Harbor Light was constructed and lit.

The old lighthouse sat vacant for quite a spell, until 1894 when it was sold as surplus at auction to Albert Sherman. It was during this timeframe that the wonderful accompanying photograph of the two lighthouses, with Albert’s very effective lawnmower in the foreground, was taken. The house was subsequently owned by numerous folks, with the Grant family adding a large, attractive and appropriate addition to the little keeper’s house in 1932. Also caring for this remarkable structure over the years were the Vaughan’s Headington’s, and the present owners, the Shippee family.

The lighthouse still survives today, some 191 years after its construction, as a remarkable reminder of Wickford’s nautical heritage. It is now the oldest wooden lighthouse in the entire United States of America. Yes, you read that correctly, the oldest wooden lighthouse in America. Builder Charles Allen, wherever his spirit resides, is no doubt rightfully proud of that fact.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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