EAST PROVIDENCE — “It’s very hot up here, but the view’s worth it,” promises Dave Kelleher, as he descends the ladder into the tight-fitting light tower atop the Pomham Rocks Lighthouse in East Providence last week.
He’s right: It’s steamy up there, but the panoramic view of the Providence River dazzles. And if things go as planned by The Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse, everyone will be allowed to enjoy the view within the next few years. It could even be a tourist destination, said Mr. Kelleher, a retired school principal and chairman of the nonprofit group.
Not bad for a lighthouse that most people don’t even know exists. Built in 1871 on a big rock about 800 feet from the east shore in the Riverside section of East Providence, it’s accessible only by boat and can best be seen from the East Bay Bike Path, which runs along the shoreline off Bullock’s Point Avenue.
“I give tours of all the lighthouses,” said Mr. Kelleher, who works with Save The Bay. “With Pomham Rocks, a lot of people don’t even know it’s there. For most people, the bike trail is the only place they can see it.”
That all will change when the lighthouse is restored to its original glory by the end of 2014, which is what the Friends are shooting for. Mr. Kelleher points to the success of a couple of near-identical projects as a model. “We have two examples of this — Rose Island Lighthouse in Newport and Colchester (Reef Light) in Vermont. It’s the same house, same architect,” he said. “The people at Rose Island have done a fabulous job.”
Although he’s proud of the restoration efforts the group has made since it formed in 2004 — the exterior of the 40-foot-high lighthouse was given a complete makeover completed in 2006 — the interior is another story. There’s still big work to be done, which will cost an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 that still needs to be raised by the Friends, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation which owns the property. “The inside is pretty bad,” said Mr. Kelleher. “The home has been vacant since 1985 with no heat.”
Only a handful of keepers
The structure was once inhabited by a handful of keepers and their families who lived on the tiny islet before the lighthouse was discontinued in 1974 and replaced by an automatic light on a 20-foot skeleton tower. “Only about five or six families have lived there — about 20 to 25 years at a time,” said Mr. Kelleher.
Its first keeper, C.H. Salisbury, lit the original Fresnel lens in December 1871 and remained there until his death in 1893. According to a Providence Journal article in 1891, his “lovely house” featured a piano parlor and a large library, with a flower and vegetable garden on the half-acre property.
Another long-serving keeper was Adolph Herman Aronson, a native of Sweden who maintained the property for 29 years along with his wife, Nellie, and their three children. The Aronsons’ own piano was brought over on a two-masted schooner and swung between the masts, according to a report in the Providence Evening Bulletin. To lower the piano to the rocks, crew members all moved to one side which allowed the vessel to tilt gently down.
What brought the Aronsons the most notoriety, however, was their cat which made headlines across the country. “They had a cat that would catch fish. He’d jump on the rock down to the water and bring them to shore,” said Mr. Kelleher.
Another keeper, William J. Howard (1937-1951), called Pomham Rocks “Little Alcatraz.” He was glad to eventually retire, he said, since the lighthouse had no electricity, running water or a bathtub. (A basement cistern collected rainwater, kerosene or whale oil provided heat and a windmill powered a radio.)
Discontinued in 1974
The lighthouse got its first telephone in 1940, electricity in the late ’50s and was staffed by two alternating Coast Guard keepers during its last active days. In 1980, six years after being discontinued, Mobil Oil Company bought the property for about $40,000. Mr. Kelleher believes Mobil — now Exxon Mobil — bought the lighthouse for security reasons due to its close proximity to one of its tankers.
In 2001, some local residents concerned about the fate of the property got together and approached Exxon Mobil to seek a partnership, said Mr. Kelleher. “We had to prove our case that we wanted to restore it,” he said.
The Friends officially formed in 2004 and received a $50,000 donation from Exxon Mobil to help get restoration efforts off the ground. The people of Riverside wanted the property restored in part to ward off vandals, according to Mr. Kelleher. Since 2004 he knows of only one vandalism incident, when someone broke in the kitchen door “and had a couple of beers.”
At the time, the land was privately owned, so the Friends couldn’t seek funds from the local, state or federal government. About $300,000 was raised through private donations, which was used to hire Abcore Restoration to repair and restore the exterior.
“There were just three or them, but they just went gangbusters,” said Mr. Kelleher, noting that many changes made by the Coast Guard over the years needed to be fixed. “It was maintained, but not historically. It was maintained Coast Guard-y.”
During the restoration work, the original siding from 1871 was found, which Abcore duplicated. “When we took over the lighthouse, it was a Coast Guard house — white, red, black, red and gray,” he said. “Now you can’t tell the difference between the original siding and the new.”
The roof shingles were not original, so “the only red slate in the world” was brought in from upstate New York, he said. In addition, the tower was straightened out, water damage to the framing and rafters was repaired and the chimney was rebuilt. The exterior restoration was completed in early 2006 and in July of that year the navigational light was returned to the lighthouse.
“When we re-lit the lighthouse in 2006, a lot of people were so disappointed because it didn’t blink. But it never did. It was always a stationary, red light. We wanted to go back to what it was originally,” said Mr. Kelleher.
Interior work next
Although the exterior was restored to its 1871 state, Mr. Kelleher thinks the interior will resemble more what the lighthouse looked like in the 1930s to the 1950s. The house is pretty much empty, although there’s still a relatively modern (1970s) stove in the kitchen. The stairway — which has the original one-piece wood railing — will be the centerpiece of the interior, according to Mr. Kelleher.
As for the original Fresnel lens, replaced by a more modern one in 1939, it sits in the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass. “Maybe someday we can get it back,” he said, adding that it could be displayed downstairs for public view.
That’s the ultimate goal, after all. In order to receive additional funding, the Friends must follow R.I. Preservation and Heritage Commissionguidelines which dictate that the property must eventually be accessible to the public. The Friends may entertain the possibility of charging people to stay overnight at the lighthouse, as does Rose Island in Newport.
“But right now, we’re not even thinking about that,” said Mr. Kelleher, who’s focused on the next round of grants and continuing work on the property, such as fixing the fence around the perimeter.
Added board member Joe Estrella, who brought visitors over to the lighthouse on his boat last week, “Everyone has their own idea of what it should be. Some people think that someone should be living there — that’s not what I envision.”
He has more modest ideas for the property. “Nothing would make me happier than seeing a fourth- or six-grade class over there having a picnic,” he said.
For more information about Pomham Rocks Lighthouse, visit www.pomhamrockslighthouse.org.