Whale Rock is a small island at the entrance to the West Passage of Narragansett Bay.  In 1867 it was the site of a deadly schooner crash that killed five men, but it wasn’t until 1882 that a lighthouse was constructed to guide mariners past the island.  A cast-iron caisson was set atop the rock and filled with concrete.  The four story lighthouse was built on top of this cylinder with three of the levels serving as living quarters for the keepers.  It was not considered to be a desirable assignment because of the cramped living conditions and exposure to every storm that struck the area.  In fact, 16 different head keepers served at the station during its first 27 years.

            On September 21, 1938 the station was being manned by the assistant keeper, Walter Eberle, while the keeper, Daniel Sullivan, was ashore obtaining supplies.  An approaching storm prevented Sullivan from returning to the lighthouse.  Subsequently, one of the most destructive hurricanes ever recorded struck New England.  More than 600 people died in what became known as the Great New England hurricane, most in Rhode Island.  Eberle was among those who perished as a massive wave struck Whale Rock and tore off the lantern room and top two stories of the lighthouse.  His body was never found, but it was assumed that he had moved to the top floor to ride out the storm.  Shortly afterwards, the bottom two floors collapsed into the base.  At nearby Prudence Island five others, including the lightkeeper’s wife and son, perished as they sought shelter in the lighthouse.

            After the demise of the lighthouse, there was speculation that it had not been properly fastened to the base.  Later in 1938 an engineer examined the remains and found that there was no evidence of anchor bolts or any other means by which the lighthouse was attached to the foundation.  However, he did conclude that the reason it collapsed was that corroded bolts holding the iron plates of the tower together gave way under the repeated pounding of the waves.  In 1940, what remained of the lighthouse was removed and a skeletal tower and light mounted on the base.  That light was eliminated in the 1950’s.  All that remains today is some remnants of the foundation.  In 2008 on the 70th anniversary of the 1938 hurricane a memorial plaque dedicated to the memory of Walter Eberle was unveiled at the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum.


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