Of all the lighthouses in this country, only a few have had as sinister history as Whale Rock Light. Today, its ruins tell a grim tale of death and madness. Was Whale Rock Light cursed? Forty-year-old assistant keeper Walter Eberle, who perished there, probably thought so.
Whale Rock, so named because its appearance resembles a breaching whale, sits at the entrance to the West Passage of Narragansett Bay. The rock had claimed at least eight ships and six lives before the Lighthouse Board recommended building light on the rock in 1872. In its annual report for that year, the Board described it as “a reef of rocks awash at all stages of tides, and a dangerous obstruction to navigation.”
Many vessels fell victim to the rock including the sloop Dart which hit the rock and sank with all hands. The schooner Israel H. Day also went down with all hands. But it wasn’t until the loss of the Providence in 1880 that congress finally appropriated funds to build a lighthouse in 1881. Construction started a few months later but work could only be done at low tide and with calm seas. Only the light’s foundation was finished the first year before autumn storms forced construction to stop. Working on the rock was dangerous and many workmen were washed into the sea when sudden waves would wash over the rock. In 1882 Whale Rock Light was completed.
Nathaniel Dodge was the light’s first keeper. Because Whale Rock was isolated a mile offshore, and exposed to the fury of Atlantic storms, it was not a desirable post for keepers. Between 1882 and 1909 Whale Rock had sixteen different keepers.
Perhaps it was this isolation that in 1897 caused a violent clash between Judson Allen, the principal keeper, and Henry Nygren, the assistant keeper. Apparently, Nygren went mad and attacked Allen with a knife. Allen slid down a rope to the rocks below and escaped. He climbed into a rowboat as Nygren took a shotgun and fired twice at him in the boat. Nygren pursued Allen in a second boat yelling, “Oh, I’ll murder you! I’m after you!” Nygren was finally apprehended and brought ashore in irons the next day.
Many other strange events occurred at the light. In 1901 Keeper Stanton was clearing out his boat when he heard a hissing sound and saw a snake coiled on the rock. He picked up a stick and killed the snake but was baffled about how a snake could appear on a rock a mile from shore. Another time a meteor crashed into the sea by the light with a thunderous explosion that could be heard miles away.
On December 26, 1901, Keeper Nathan Eckman was rowing to shore at Narragansett Pier to pick up the mail and get supplies. A sudden storm came up and his boat capsized. Eckman was drowned.
Eckman wouldn’t be the last to lose his life at the light. On September 21, 1938, the final tragedy of Whale Rock was about to happen. Keeper Daniel Sullivan went ashore to get supplies leaving assistant keeper, Walter Eberle, in charge. Eberle, a former navy man, had a wife and six children. He’d only been with the Lighthouse Service for a year. Little did Sullivan realize he would never see Eberle alive again, while he was ashore the Hurricane of 1938 hit, preventing him from returning to the light.
As the hurricane grew stronger Whale Rock was repeatedly hit with giant waves lashed by the 120 mile per hour winds. Stuck in the tower, one can only imagine Eberle’s terror. Finally a huge wave, most likely the tidal wave survivors of the storm talked about, hit the lighthouse. It tore off the light’s top two stories, killing Eberle. His body was never found.
Six weeks after the hurricane G.C. Huxford of the Lighthouse Service was able to inspect the wreckage. His report read in part, “Most of the kitchen floor was still in place, as well as the cast-iron basement stairs but above this deck level everything is gone or wrecked.”
Today, nothing remains of Whale Rock Light except the crumpled ruins of its foundation. Mute testimony to the tragedy of the lives lost on Whale Rock.