Block Island is located at the eastern end of Long Island Sound at 41.2° north and 71.5° west. It is composed of 7,000 acres, and is seven miles long and three miles across. The island is a part of Washington County, Rhode Island as the town of New Shoreham, located about 14 miles of the Rhode Island coast at Point Judith. The island has about 1000 year round residents, which grows to over 10000 residents and visitors during the summer months. The geography of the island is dominated by the Great Salt Pond near the center of the island, and is the location of the main harbor for the island.

Block Island was created during the last ice age, when large glaciers spread across New England, carving out the landscape and depositing large piles of debris off the coast. This debris was then compacted by the glaciers, and created many of the islands to the south of New England, including Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Long Island, and Block Island.

The island was the home to the Manissean tribe, which was a part of the Narragansett tribes that lived along the coast. Dutch explorer Adriaen Block explored the island in 1614. After being shipwrecked near Manhattan a year before, Block went on to explore the Connecticut River and much of the coast of Long Island Sound. The island now bears his name. The first settlers to the island came from the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1661, and it was incorporated as a town in the colony of Rhode Island in 1672.

Like many of the other small islands located off the southern coast of New England, Block Island remained isolated from the mainland. Many of the inhabitants of the island survived by fishing or farming what they could out of the rocky soil. The invention of the steam engine in the early 1800's changed the course of life on the island. Because of the efficiency of the new steam ships, it was now easy and convenient for tourists to visit the island during the warm months. A large harbor and several new hotels were built to accommodate tourists visiting from Connecticut and New York City.

The invention of the automobile made tourism on the mainland easier, and the tourist industry began to decline. The island reinvented itself as a rustic fishing community. More recently, the island has witnessed a resurgence in tourism, but without the heavy bustle of the 1800's. Today, a stay on Block Island is more about relaxation than most other New England tourist spots.

The seas around Block Island are notorious among sailors for the shallow shoals and frequent fog. Between 1819 and 1838, 59 ships were wrecked on or near the island. Lighthouses were soon built on the North and Southeast ends of the island in order to prevent such tragedies.

Block Island North Light

This lighthouse was built in 1829, composed to two lights facing opposite directions. However, this did not prevent the schooner "Warrior" from wrecking on nearby Sandy Shoals a few years later, killing 21 sailors. Shifting sand threatened the building, and a new lighthouse was built a little farther inland in 1837. Sailors still complained that the lights were too dim on the house, making it nearly useless on foggy seas. Another new lighthouse was built in 1857, and this one too was threatened by sand.

Finally, the current lighthouse was built in 1869 by a contractor from Fall River, Massachusetts for $15000. The building is made out of granite with an iron tower containing a Fresnel lens, and looks much like other lighthouses along Long Island Sound. While originally lit by kerosene, the lighthouse was given a rotating electrified light in 1940. The light was automated in 1956, and eventually replaced with a steel structure located closer to the beach in 1973. After a massive restoration by the town of New Shoreham, the North Light was placed back into active service in the August 5, 1989, with it's bottom floor restored as a museum.

Block Island Southeast Light

This lighthouse was originally supposed to be built in 1857, but the money was diverted to reconstructing the north light instead. In 1872, local Nicholas Ball petitioned the government to build a lighthouse on the south end of the island, as many ships were in danger. Congress again gave money for construction, and The Southeast Light was completed in 1875. The lighthouse is the tallest light in New England.

The lighthouse is unlike any other on the New England coast, made with a combination of Italianate and Gothic Revival architectural styles. It was built by T. H. Tynan of Staten Island. The entire structure is built of brick, with a granite foundation. A 2-story keeper's house is attached to the tower, which is capped by an iron lantern. The light was equipped with a kerosene-powered fog horn in 1906. After being destroyed by a fire, the fog signal was replaced in 1972. Because of the gradual erosion of the cliff edge near the lighthouse (at one point nearly 50 feet away from the structure), the lighthouse was moved 300 feet further inland in 1994, at a cost of $2 million. The lens for the light was replaced with another Fresnel lens from Cape Lookout Light in North Carolina, and was relit on August 24, 1994. This lighthouse is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Block Island is home to a very unique ecology. Over 40 animals and plants that are found on the island are rare or endangered species, and this has brought the attention of both state and local governments. The town of New Shoreham, as well as other local environmental organizations, have been putting forth money and resources to reserve parts of Block Island as nature reserves.

One can get to Block Island by ferry from Narragansett, New London, or Riverhead, or on a New England Airlines flight out of Westerly.


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