Of all the lighthouses in this country only a few have as sinister a 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, a busy passage leading to the port of Providence, Rhode Island. The rock had claimed at least eight ships and six lives before the Lighthouse Board recommended building a 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 large steamship Providence that struck the rock in 1880 that congress finally appropriated funds to build a lighthouse.
Construction started a few months later in 1881 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 finally 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 considered 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 slashing at him with a knife. The two men fought until Allen was able to kick the knife down the stairs. To escape the enraged Nygren Allen slid down a rope to the rocks below and ran to a boat. As Allen was climbing into the rowboat Nygren took a shotgun and fired twice at him, missing both times. Seeing his quarry escaping Nygren jumped into a second boat and pursued Allen reportedly yelling, “Oh, I’ll murder you! I’m after you!” The terrified Allen rowed like the devil pursued him. After reaching shore Allen reported the incident. Nygren, having returned to the lighthouse, was observed raving, smashing things, and dancing wildly. He was finally apprehended and brought ashore in irons the following day.
Many other strange events occurred at Whale Rock Light. In 1901 Keeper Stanton was clearing out his boat when he heard a hissing sound and saw a large snake coiled on the rock. He picked up a stick and killed the snake but he was baffled about how a snake could appear on a rock a mile from shore. Another of the rock’s sixteen keepers was terrified by a meteor crashing into the sea close 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 Eckman’s small boat was 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 Light was about to happen. Keeper Daniel Sullivan went ashore to get supplies leaving assistant keeper, Walter Eberle, in charge.
Forty year old Walter B. Eberle was a former navy submariner who’d served in the Navy for twenty years. Eberle had a wife and six children to support and welcomed the chance in 1937 to become an assistant keeper. He’d only been with the Lighthouse Service for a year. But unlike some other lighthouses which had a keeper’s cottage, Whale Rock Light was what is known as a sparkplug light with nowhere to house a family. So Eberle’s wife and children lived onshore at the family home in Newport. Eberle’s oldest son Walter, Jr. would sometimes come with his father to the light.
The day of the 38 hurricane started out with no indication of the coming tempest. As Keeper Sullivan rowed ashore he didn’t realize that he would never see Eberle alive again. While he was ashore the weather quickly deteriorated and the greatest hurricane since the great gale of 1885 hit, the great Hurricane of 1938.
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, as the huge waves struck with unbelievable force. A huge wave, most likely the tidal wave survivors of the storm spoke about, hit the lighthouse. In one catastrophic moment it tore the Whale Rock Light’s top two stories right off. Whether Eberle was killed instantly or drowned in the raging sea will never be known. His body was never recovered.
Six weeks after the hurricane G.C. Huxford of the Lighthouse Service was finally able to inspect the wreckage. There wasn’t much left. 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.”
In 2008, the Friends of Whale Rock Light, the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum, and The Foundation for Coast Guard History erected a plaque at the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum in Jamestown, Rhode Island dedicated to Eberle. It reads, In honor and memory to U.S. Navy veteran and Light Keeper Walter B. Eberle. This brave sailor gave the last full measure of devotion to his duty to keep the light burning, September 21, 1938, when “The Great New England Hurricane of 1938” swept the Whale Rock Light Station into the Sea. Presented by The Foundation for Coast Guard History.
Whale Rock is now marked by Whale Rock Lighted Gong Buoy 3.The crumpled ruins of the foundation are all that remain of Whale Rock Light, mute testimony to the immense power of that storm and a tragic memorial to the lives lost on this desolate shoal.