When a young Dennis Tardiff was told he would be posted at the Pomham Rocks Lighthouse, his first reaction was: “Where’s that?”
The Coast Guardsman had never heard of that little island in the Providence River, an 800-foot swim from the Riverside shore. When Tardiff, a Maine native, arrived there in April of 1971, he had no idea the lighthouse was just turning 100 years old. He didn’t necessarily expect to live in the lighthouse, staggering shifts with two other men, for three years and three months. He didn’t know he would be the last serviceman to live there before the Coast Guard shut down the lighthouse for good. In fact, he only learned it would close from the newspaper reporters who contacted him, asking for comment.
But most striking of all, Tardiff never imagined his life would become so tied to that one islet. Today, he is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse, which has successfully restored the building and its modest grounds. This year marks the 150th anniversary of its original construction, and despite the pandemic, the Friends intend to celebrate in style.
The handsome Victorian structure has a long and storied history, starting with its first lighting in 1871. A handful of civilian lighthouse keepers lived on site, often with families; the first, C.H. Salisbury, manned the island for 22 years. Conditions were rustic, even during Tardiff’s tenure; there was no plumbing, and all supplies had to be boated in.
“Three years is a long time for that kind of work,” Tardiff recalls. “We had been working on that lighthouse two weeks on and one week off for a while. We worked three or four days by ourselves. That was getting pretty old. I was looking for a change.”
Tardiff settled in Rhode Island with his family, and he stayed with the Coast Guard for 26 years. But Pomham Rocks was shut down in 1974; a few civilians tried to live there, but the island was finally abandoned altogether. Exxon Mobil owned the island from 1980 until 2010, at which point the petroleum giant donated Pomham Rocks to the American Lighthouse Foundation. In 2006, after exhaustive fundraising efforts, the exterior was restored and a new navigational light was installed.
Tardiff didn’t set foot on the island until 2016, a full 42 years after he was stationed there. The facility was largely intact, but the neglect was palpable.
“It was quite a feeling, to go back there,” remembers Tardiff. “The lighthouse was built very strong. The beams are nothing like we have today. The thing had great underpinnings. But the inside was in shambles. There was a lot of rot going on.”
What’s more, the tower was leaning at seven degrees – imperceptible from a distance, but guaranteed to collapse without structural aid.
Today, the restoration is complete, and Pomham Rocks is equipped to receive visitors. All the floors are new, and power has been restored, thanks to a new cable that runs under the water. The island has a dedicated, 26-foot boat, which can ferry 19 passengers at a time. The Friends of the Pomham Rocks Lighthouse now boasts 163 members from across the country.
One of its newest members is Judianne Point, who grew up in Massachusetts and has a lifelong affection for nautical beacons. “Lighthouses are always in the best locations,” she says. “They’ve always fascinated me.”
Point’s husband, Gary, grew up on the East Bay. As a child, Gary would visit the dentist, whose office had a view of Pomham Rocks. Later, the Points would ride the East Bay Bike Path, which offers the clearest vista of the island. After years of wondering what the lighthouse was like inside, Judianne learned about the Friends and signed up as a member. Now she is a board member, chair of the 150th Anniversary Committee, and tour director for the organization.
“We want to bring the lighthouse to the people,” says Point. She notes that the lighthouse is invisible from almost any drivable road, and only passing cyclists really appreciate its presence. By spreading the word, she hopes the Friends can raise awareness and encourage tours. “They have such a gem sitting out there. There’s so much to offer to people. We want to educate the public.”
To this end, the Friends will host a Pomham Rocks Lighthouse Run on April 24, and then Pomham Rocks Lighthouse Day on August 8 – the day after National Lighthouse Day. They also plan to hold a ceremony for the first lighthouse keeper, who is interred in a Warren cemetery, on June 27. Eventually, they hope to honor all of the keepers, likely one each year.
COVID-19 may limit the number of visits that are possible, and there are still a few tasks left to do – such as the removal of a 2,000-gallon oil tank – but the landmark anniversary is sure to be bright. The lighthouse itself has returned to its 19th century splendor.
Says Tardiff: “It’s better now than when I was there with the Coast Guard.”
To keep up with anniversary events and get involved, visit PomhamRocksLighthouse.org.