Previous Light:
Stonington, CT
Next Lighthouse:
Point Judith

Watch Hill Lighthouse

Watch Hill lighthouse

Westerly, Rhode Island
Built in 1808


Eastern point of Fishers Island Sound. Located on Lighthouse Road, Watch Hill, Rhode Island, 02891

Latitude: 41° 18' 14" N
Longitude: 71° 51' 30" W


Historic Stories:

Watch Hill got its name during King George's War, in the 1740's when a watchtower was built on what was called Bear Hill to warn local residents against naval attacks. The watchtower continued to be used in the 1750s during the French and Indian Wars to track French pirates that were bothering local fishermen and merchant ships, making smoke signals during the day and bonfires at night when pirate ships were sighted. The makeshift tower was destroyed during a fierce storm in 1781.

As the number of recorded shipwrecks on the dangerous reefs around Watch Hill continued to increase, residents petitioned for a lighthouse. President Thomas Jefferson ordered the lighthouse to be built which was completed in 1808. It is Rhode Island’s second oldest lighthouse.

vintage image of Watch Hill lighthouse aerial view
Image Courtesy of US Coast Guard
Although the beacon had guided many mariners, the area was still the site of many shipwrecks and maritime disasters from the dangerous rocks and ledges that surround the area until modern times.

By the 1850's, the wooden structures of both the tower and keeper's building were rotting away, as constant erosion was also causing the tower to become dangerously close to falling into the sea.

A new granite lighthouse with a new rock based seawall was approved and built in 1856 as part of a building frenzy that started after the Lighthouse Board took charge of all navigational aids in the United States. Watch Hill Lighthouse tower and rock seawall

After the Civil War, three specialized lifesaving services were established along the shoreline and out in the water under the US Lighthouse Service. The Revenue Cutter Service, which was used for off shore rescues a distance from the mainland using cutter vessels, the Lighthouse Service, that protected and maintained the growing number of lighthouses, and could only help with rescues near the beacon, and the Life Saving Service, where shore based stations were built a few miles between lighthouses consisting of trained "surfmen", who could go out a distance from the shore.


Two of Rhode Island's Worst Maritime Disasters Occurred Near Watch Hill Lighthouse

The Collision of the Steamer Metis and the Schooner Nellie Cushing

In 1872, the huge steamer Metis carrying 160 people to Providence collided with the schooner Nettie Cushing about a mile from Watch Hill lighthouse. Although 67 persons perished, through the coordinated efforts of those various branches of the newly formed lifesaving services and personnel, and with additional rescue efforts made by local mariners who risked their lives, 85 people were rescued in what could have been a more tragic incident in the loss of lives. This interaction among the three services, which initially had not been used, played a major factor in the coordination of rescue services in future events.

In 1873, Keeper Jared Crandall was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his part in the rescue operations involving the Metis. Watch Hill lighthouse at low tide

Rescue of Survivors of the Steamship  Larchmont

In 1907, in a blinding February blizzard, the steamer Larchmont collided with a schooner Harry P. Knowlton about 4 miles southwest of Watch Hill Light. The Larchmont sank in less than half an hour. Most of the passengers in the panic had only their night clothes on and perished from exposure to the bone chilling temperatures and howling winds. Many of those who were able to escape in a few of the lifeboats that were used or on makeshift rafts, froze to death before reaching the shore.

Most of the survivors followed the fierce winds which blew them over towards Block Island North Lighthouse, as they could see the light flashing in the distance. Keeper Elam Littlefield and his family, were awakened around daybreak by a young teenager Fred Hiergesell, banging on his door, who had managed enough strength to stumble up from one of the lifeboats. 

The keeper saw a few survivors reaching the shore, along with some lifeboats containing only the dead. He alerted the life saving station nearby and some local fisherman, and that moring was able to bring any survivors to the lighthouse for medical attention, as most were in severe condition due to exposure to the plummeting temperatures and gale force winds. He was also directly involved in the grim task of retrieving 48 bodies that also washed up on the beach, using a horse drawn cart.

It is believed about 143 passengers and crew died from the tragic incident. Only 19 people survived the disaster, most of those reaching Block Island. It would be Rhode Island's worst maritime disaster of the 20th century.

Block Island North Lighthouse along beach

Block Island North Lighthouse Along Beach

Note: For more intricate details about both of these historic events, select the links "Wreck of the Metis" Blog, or "Larchmont Disaster" Blog at the top of the page to view both stories in my Lighthouse Stories blog.



On June 28, 1918, the freighter Onondaga ran aground on Watch Hill Reef in heavy fog, and sank in fifty feet of water. Two months later, the fishing steamer George Hudson also hit the reef and sank.

In 1962, the ship Leif Viking ran aground just a few hundred feet away and remained stranded for nine days before a tug towed it to New York City.





Places to Visit Nearby:

Westerly offers the Victorian elegance and history of Watch Hill with its beaches and golf courses nearby as one of Rhode Island’s top vacation spots. It is part of what is considered as Rhode Island's South County. It is a quaint resort area with the nation’s oldest carousel and stately mansions. One of its beaches, the Misquamicut Beach, spans seven miles from Watch Hill to Weekapaug, and is Rhode Island's longest stretch of beach with its pristine waters and white sand. Misquamicut Beach also features a state of the art pavilion, amusement parks, and plenty of restaurants. Families can also enjoy the Water Wizz Fun Park. Westerly is next to the Connecticut border and lies 15 minutes away from Foxwoods Casino and Mohegan Sun Casino.

Watch Hill lighthouse buildings and grounds Watch Hill lighthouse grounds are open to visitors and a small museum has been established in the oil house.

The museum, which features a fourth-order Fresnel lens once used in the tower, is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer.

You can fish offshore while enjoying the surf. fishing off the shore along watch hill light

There are plenty of restaurants and specialty shops to explore as you park along the shoreline before walking to the lighthouse.




From the North or South

From the East:

Watch Hill Light


Contact Info:
Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association
14 Lighthouse Road
Watch Hill, RI 02891



Local Boat Tours

Boat cruises mentioned below offer many types of cruises. While some may offer specific lighthouse cruises, some will pass by specific lighthouses as part of charters, narrated wildlife and historic tours, ferrying passengers, fishing tours and other types of excursions. Enjoy!


Davis Park Ferry Co.
Ferry from Patchogue, Long Island, to Watch Hill, Rhode Island. 

(516) 475-1665
Fax (516) 289-2185



Hard Tail Charters

They offer scenic tours and harbor cruises from Watch Hill, Rhode Island, to Stonington and Mystic, Connecticut, and out to Fishers Island, New York.

Phone: (401) 234-1171



Snappa Charters
Offers specific lighthouse tours around Narragansett Bay and to Block Island in addition to other adventure tours.

(401) 782-4040
22 Colvintown Rd.
Coventry, RI 02816
Home (401) 821-7373
Boat/Cell (401) 487-9044



My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. You'll find more detailed accounts of the Metis shipwreck, and of the collision between the Harry P Knowlton and the Larchmont, that occured near the lighthouse.

Look inside!

book about lighthouses and local coastal atttractions in southern New England




You can order these books through any pages on this website, and I'll be happy to personally sign and ship them to you anywhere inside the United States. You can also order from the publisher, Schiffer Books, who can ship anywhere globally.



Price is lower at $24.95 if purchased here.


Table of Contents

Over 50 famous stories with lots of details in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales

There are detailed accounts about the two worst disasters and the rescue efforts involved in the Larchmont collision, and the greatest coordinated rescue of the Metis between lifesaving services and locals near Watch Hill Lighthouse, along with many other stories.

The book also contains, along with my photographs, paintings by six famous artists for the Coast Guard, and vintage images from the Coast Guard, museums, and special collectors.



Back to Top