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Block Island, Rhode Island
—  Island (for town, see New Shoreham, Rhode Island)  —
Block Island, shown in red, off the coast of the State of Rhode Island.
Coordinates: 41°10′11″N 71°34′48″W / 41.16972, -71.58Coordinates: 41°10′11″N 71°34′48″W / 41.16972, -71.58
Country United States
State Rhode Island
County Washington
 • Type Council-manager
 • First Warden Kimberly H. Gaffett
 • Land 9.734 sq mi (25.21 km2)
Population (2010)
 • Total 1,051
Time zone EST (UTC-5)
 • Summer (DST) EDT (UTC-4)
ZIP code 02807
Area code(s) 401

Block Island is part of the U.S. state of Rhode Island. It is located in the Atlantic Ocean about 13 miles (21 km) south of the coast of Rhode Island, 14 miles (23 km) east of Montauk Point on Long Island, and is separated from the Rhode Island mainland by Block Island Sound. The United States Census Bureau defines Block Island as Census Tract 415 of Washington County, Rhode Island. As of the 2010 census the population of 1,051 lived on a land area of 9.734 square miles (25.211 km2).[1] The island is part of the Outer Lands region, a coastal archipelago made by the recessional and terminal moraine that resulted from the Wisconsonian Laurentide glacier retreat, about 22,000 years ago.

The Nature Conservancy added Block Island to its list of "The Last Great Places"; the list consists of twelve sites in the Western Hemisphere. About 40 percent of the island is set aside for conservation.[2] Presidents Bill Clinton,[3][4] Dwight D. Eisenhower,[5] Franklin Delano Roosevelt,[6] and Ulysses S. Grant[7][8] have visited Block Island. Other famous visitors include Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, who each made separate trips to the island in 1929.[9]

Block Island is coextensive with the town of New Shoreham. The island is a popular summer tourist destination and is known for its bicycling, hiking, sailing, fishing, and beaches. The island hosts two historic lighthouses: Block Island North Light, on the northern tip of the island, and Block Island Southeast Light, on the southeastern side. Much of the northwestern tip of the island is an undeveloped natural area and resting stop for birds along the Atlantic Flyway.[10]

Every summer the island hosts Block Island Race Week, a competitive, week-long sailboat race. On odd years, the event is held by the Storm Trysail Club, and on even years by the Block Island Race Week. Yachts compete in various classes, sailing courses in Block Island Sound and circumnavigating the island.

Other popular events include the annual Fourth of July Parade and celebration. During these times the island's population can triple over the normal summer vacation crowd.

Native history[]

The Niantic, whose tribe eventually merged with the Narragansett people, called the island "Manisses" ("little island of Manitou").[11][12] Archaeological sites indicate these people lived largely by hunting deer, catching fish and shellfish, and growing corn, beans, and squash. They migrated from forest to coastal areas to take advantage of seasonal resources.[13] Artifacts found in the area suggest that American Indians inhabited the area as far back as 1300 BC.[14] In 1662, natives on the island numbered somewhere from 1,200 to 1,500. By 1774, that number had been reduced to fifty-one.[15]

File:Colonists on block.png

Former Massachusetts Governor John Endicott attacking the Niantic (tribe) on Block Island in the summer of 1637.

Due to intrusions by the Pequot and Mohegan in the early 17th century, the Niantic were split into two divisions; the Western Niantic, who allied with the Pequot and Mohegan, and the Eastern Niantic, who allied with the Narragansett.

File:Natives on block.jpg

The Niantic (tribe) defending themselves on Block Island in the summer of 1637.

In 1634, Western Niantic defended their tribe by killing John Stone, a renegade Boston man, who was known for stealing Pilgrim vessels, near the mouth of the Connecticut River. Despite the fact that Stone was trying to kidnap native women and children to sell as slaves in Virginia, the colonists became furious (partly due to earlier Indian atrocities against settlers on the mainland by a related tribe). The English demanded that the Pequot Indians (who spoke for the Western Niantic) surrender his killers. This was refused and began the slide towards war. In the summer of 1637, the Western Niantic killed another Boston man, the trader John Oldham, near Block Island.

Without consulting the Connecticut colonists, Massachusetts, in August, sent a punitive expedition of ninety men under John Endicott to Block Island with instructions to kill every Niantic warrior and capture the women and children, who would be valuable as slaves. The expedition was ordered by Massachusetts Governor Henry Vane to "massacre all of the Native men on the island". The expedition killed fourteen Eastern Niantic and burned their village and crops. The English burned sixty wigwams and the corn fields. They also shot every dog, but the Niantic fled into the woods, and the soldiers only managed to kill fourteen of them. Deciding this punishment was insufficient, Endicott and his men sailed over to Fort Saybrook before going after the Pequot village at the mouth of the Thames River to demand one thousand fathoms of wampum to pay for the murder of John Oldham and took some Pequot children as hostages to insure peace. This incident is seen as one of the initial events that led to the Pequot War.[16][17][18]

History since colonial times[]

Southeast Light is a Block Island landmark.

First view of southside Block Island from ferry from New London, Connecticut

Historic Harbor Church, American Baptist-affiliated, is perched on a high hill on the western side of New Shoreham. The church occupies a reconstructed structure that is the former Adrian Hotel. In 1974, it was included in the National Register of Historic Places as part of Old Harbor Historic District in New Shoreham.

Two-story Block Island Historical Society building

In 1524, what later became known as Block Island was sighted by Giovanni da Verrazzano, who named it "Claudia", in honor of Claude, Duchess of Brittany, queen consort of France and the wife of Francis I. However, several contemporaneous maps identified the same island as "Luisa," after Louise of Savoy, the Queen Mother of France, and the mother of Francis I. Verrazano's ship log stated that the island was "full of hilles, covered with trees, well-peopled for we saw fires all along the coaste." In 1614, Block Island was charted by the Dutch explorer Adrian Block, who named it for himself.[19] An expedition from the Boston area arrived in 1636 led by John Endecott, and the island initially became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which in 1658 sold the island to a group of men headed up by Endecott, who had led the 1636 expedition. In 1661, the Endecott group sold the island to a party of sixteen settlers, led by John Alcock, who are today memorialized at Settler's Rock, near Cow's Cove. As these settlers had an allegiance to Rhode Island on several levels, Block Island was incorporated by the Rhode Island general assembly in 1672, and the island government adopted the name "New Shoreham." A Dutch map of 1685 clearly shows Block Island, indicated as Adriaen Blocks Eylant ("Adrian Block's Island").

In 1699, the Scottish sailor William Kidd visited Block Island, shortly before he was accused of piracy and hanged. At Block Island he was supplied by Mercy (Sands) Raymond, daughter of the mariner James Sands. The story has it that, for her hospitality, Kidd bade Mrs. Raymond hold out her apron, into which he threw gold and jewels until it was full. After her husband, Joshua Raymond, died, Mercy moved with her family to northern New London, Connecticut (later Montville), where she bought much land. The Raymond family was thus said to have been "enriched by the apron".[20]

During the War of 1812, Block Island was briefly occupied by the British Navy under the command of Sir Thomas Hardy. British vessels included HMS Dispatch, HMS Terror, HMS Nimrod, HMS Pactolus, and HMS Ramillies. Hardy took the fleet to Block Island in search of food and to establish a strategic position at the mouth of Long Island Sound. The British were enraged to discover that nearly all Block Island livestock and food stores had been transferred to Stonington, Connecticut, in advance of their arrival. On August 9, 1814, Hardy and his fleet departed Block Island for Stonington Harbor in part to lay claim to the Block Island food stores and livestock. Hardy's pre-dawn raid on August 10th was repulsed with damage to his fleet in a battle that has since become known as The Battle of Stonington.[21]

In 1829, the original North Lighthouse was built, but it was replaced in 1837 after it was washed out to sea. The ocean claimed this lighthouse also, and the lighthouse that can be seen today was constructed only in 1867.[22] A few years later, in 1873, construction began on Block Island's other lighthouse, Southeast Light.

Since Block Island has no natural harbors, breakwaters were constructed to form Old Harbor in 1870. Block Island's other harbor, New Harbor, would not be created until 1895, when a channel was dug to connect the Great Salt Pond to the ocean through the northwestern side of the island.

The Island Free Library, Block Island's only public library, was established in 1875. Block Island's school was built in 1933, replacing five one roomed schools.

Block Island was devastated by the 1938 New England hurricane. Many islanders and tourists lost their lives during storm surge flooding.

During World War II, several artillery spotters were located on the island to direct fire from the heavy gun batteries at Fort Greene, Point Judith that protected the entrance to Narragansett Bay. Lookout positions for the spotters were built to look like houses. The US government offered to evacuate the island, as it could not be effectively defended from enemy invasion. However, the islanders chose to stay. Days before the war against Germany ended, the Battle of Point Judith took place 7 miles to the northeast of the island.

The island's airport was opened in 1950 and remains open today as a general aviation airport. In 1972 the Block Island Conservancy was founded. The Conservancy and other environmental organizations are responsible for protecting over 40% of the island from development.[23] In 1974 Old Harbor Historic District was declared a National Register historic district. Discussions of Block Island's old buildings, native islanders, history, and ongoing efforts to conserve the land, together with a collection of 800 period photographs of the island spanning the 1870s to the 1980s, are found in four books: "Block Island—The Sea", "Block Island—The Land", and Volumes 1 & 2 of "The Block Island History of Photography", all by historian Robert M. Downie.


Block Island's weather is greatly influenced by the surrounding ocean and prevailing winds that generally blow offshore. The climate is oceanic (Köppen Cfb), a rarity on an east coast in the Northern Hemisphere. Because the ocean stays cold during the Spring and Summer months, Block Island stays cooler than the mainland during this period. However, summers can still be hot on Block Island although July and August average in the mid and upper 70s instead of low and mid 80s that New York and southern New England experience. Block Island's record high temperature is 95 °F (35 °C). Block Island stays warmer than the mainland during the fall and winter months when the ocean remains relatively warmer than the mainland. Block Island's record low is −7 °F (−22 °C).

Block Island's High and Low Temperature Averages and Precipitation Averages:

Climate data for Block Island, Rhode Island
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 62
Average high °F (°C) 39.8
Average low °F (°C) 25.4
Record low °F (°C) −7
Precipitation inches (mm) 3.87
Snowfall inches (cm) 6.1
Avg. precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in) 7.9 7.7 9.7 9.9 9.8 7.4 6.2 6.2 6.5 7.9 8.8 9.1 97.1
Source #1: NOAA (normals, 1981–2010)[24]
Source #2: Western Regional Climate Center (extremes 1927–present)[25]


Beach waves near the National Hotel on Block Island

Swimmers in smooth waters at Block Island

Settler's Rock is the most northerly part of Block Island accessible to motorists.

Steep bluffs at Block Island

Crescent Beach can be viewed from the Pt. Judith Ferry and the New London Express Ferry on the way to the island. It contains four smaller beaches, Fred Benson Town Beach (still popularly known as State Beach due to its former status as one), Rouse's Beach, Scotch Beach, and Mansion Beach, all of which are located on Corn Neck Road. State Beach and Ballards Beach are the only beaches on the island with on-duty life guards. State Beach has a pavilion with food and beach rentals. Baby Beach, called by locals, begins at the Surf Hotel, near the Beachhead Restaurant on Corn Neck Rd. Scotch Beach is located just north of Fred Benson Town Beach and Mansion Beach is located north of Scotch Beach.

North of Mansion Beach are Clayhead and Pots & Kettles. Clayhead is a set of cliffs which can be seen from the ferry in from Point Judith or New London. This area is rocky and contains iron-rich clay deposits, and is a popular area for shell and rock hunting.

Cow Cove, Settler's Rock, and Sandy Point make up the northernmost point of Block Island. Here lies the North Lighthouse and the postcard sunsets. Settler's Rock is located at Cow Cove, where the settlers landed and swam to shore bringing with them the island's first cows, which they pushed off the boats and forced ashore. Attached to the rock is a plaque naming the original settlers of Block Island. This beach is not ideal for swimming on the ocean side, especially at the point, due to strong rip currents. On the other side, however, is Sachem Pond, fresh water and good for swimming.

On the south side of the island, Black Rock Beach is widely regarded as the best beach for surfing on the island due to its high surf. However, the beach tends to be very rocky and has a reputation for being a nude beach, despite laws against nudity on Rhode Island's beaches. It is located near the Mohegan Bluffs and Southeast Lighthouse.

Coastguard Beach is situated between the Great Salt Pond and the ocean on the north west side of the island. It is a popular beach for fishing and walking, but not particularly good for swimming due to the large number of boats traveling nearby.

Ballard's Beach is on the southern side of the Block Island Ferry Dock and jetty. Set right in front of Ballard's Restaurant and Inn, popular with boaters and with the young crowd. There are cocktail waitresses on the sand, and daily live music outside. There's also a busy volleyball court with daily games and tournaments. There are lifeguards on duty at Ballard's Beach.

Bluffs Beach is set at the bottom of Mohegan Bluffs. It can be accessed from its small parking lot down the 144 stairs to this rocky area, known for its spectacular view. At the foot of these steep wooden stairs are big rocks leading to the beach.

Tourist attractions[]

Harborside Inn is a restaurant and hotel on the south side of Block Island.

Southeast Lighthouse is located at the southeast corner of the island on the Mohegan Trail. The lighthouse was constructed in 1875[26] and remains to this day an active US Coast Guard navigational aid.[22] The lighthouse was moved in 1993, in danger of falling off the bluffs due to erosion. In addition to offering tours of the tower, the lighthouse has a museum that is open during the summer season.[27]

The Mohegan Bluffs are located a short distance to the west of Southeast Lighthouse. The bluffs are the site of a pre-colonial battle between the invading Mohegan, and the native Niantic in which the Mohegan were driven off the edge of the tall cliffs to their deaths on the beach below. A long staircase of over one hundred stairs leads to the bottom of these clay cliffs and looks out over the Atlantic On clear days, Montauk, New York can be seen in the distance from the southern and western sides of the island.

Rodman's Hollow is a 230-acre (93 ha) glacial outwash basin, near the southern shore of the island. The hollow has several walking trails.[28] Horseback rides through Rodman's Hollow are also offered.

North Lighthouse is located at Sandy Point on the northern tip of Block Island. The North Lighthouse warns boaters of a sandbar extending from this end of the island. The surrounding dunes are part of the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to many species, including the Piping Plover and American Burying Beetle.[29] A short walk away from the North Lighthouse lies the tip of the island, with ocean on both sides of a thin strip of land.

The Block Island Historical Society Museum is located near the downtown area and contains a broad array of Block Island artifacts.

U-853 is a U-boat wreck 7 miles (11 km) east of the island, lying in 130 ft (40 m) of water. Recreational divers frequently visit the wreck, though at least three have died there.[30][31]


Boating is popular around Block Island.

The island is connected year-round by a ferry to Point Judith, and in summer to New London, Connecticut; Montauk, New York; and Newport, Rhode Island. The traditional ferry, takes about an hour to reach the island from Point Judith. It is possible to bring a car over to the island on this ferry, but all vehicle reservations must be made and paid for in advance over the phone. It is advisable to arrange for summer month vehicle transport early in the year to assure that option is available for you. A high-speed ferry on the same route takes 35 minutes. Another high-speed ferry from New London, Connecticut to Block Island takes just over an hour. During the summer season, travelers wishing to bring their cars usually have to book reservations months in advance. New England Airlines offers regularly scheduled 12-minute flights to Block Island State Airport from Westerly, Rhode Island.[32]


In 1992 the Cunard liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 struck a submerged rock off Block Island.[33]


This house was formerly the US Weather Bureau Station on Block Island.

The area around Block Island has been the site of numerous shipwrecks, including the Steamer Larchmont in 1907 [1]. The 1738 wreck of the Princess Augusta (also known as the Palatine ship) was later immortalized by John Greenleaf Whittier in his 1867 poem, "The Wreck of the Palatine", among whose verses the words "Circled by waters that never freeze, Beaten by billow and swept by breeze, Lieth the island of Manisees", have become well-known. Two submarines also sank off of Block Island: the United States Navy USS S-51 in 1925,[34] and the German U-Boat U-853 in 1945.[35] One 19th-century shipwreck lies just south of the southeast lighthouse, its mast submerged approximately four feet below the water's surface. The area remains closed off to passing boats.

Notable residents[]

Notable current and former residents of Block Island include:

  • Kenneth Bacon (1944–2009), Department of Defense spokesman who later served as president of Refugees International[36]
  • Elizabeth Dickens (1877–1963), "the Bird Lady of Block Island", writer and naturalist[37]
  • Jens Risom (b. 1916) Danish-American furniture designer
  • William Stringfellow (1928–1985), attorney and radical Anglican theologian
  • Christopher Walken (b. 1943), American actor, and Georgianne Walken (b. 1944), casting director, own a vacation home on the island[38]
  • Steven Wright (b. 1955), American comedian, writer and actor [39]


  1. ^ Census Tract 415, Washington County United States Census Bureau
  2. ^ "One of the last great places". Providence Journal, June 9, 2005. Retrieved 2007-10-01. 
  3. ^ "Clinton Barnstorms Block Island". Providence Journal, 1997-08-18. Retrieved 2010-03-23. 
  4. ^ Robert M. Downie (1999). Block Island—The Land. , pages 128-129
  5. ^ Robert M. Downie (2008). The Block Island History of Photography, Vol. 2. , pages 214–215
  6. ^ Robert M. Downie (2008). The Block Island History of Photography, Vol. 2. , pages 130–131
  7. ^ Robert M. Downie (1999). Block Island—The Land. , page 19
  8. ^ Robert M. Downie (1998). Block Island—The Sea. , page 81
  9. ^ Robert M. Downie (1998). Block Island—The Sea. , pages 170-175
  10. ^ "Block Island National Wildlife Refuge". United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 2014-10-02. 
  11. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica; Block Island
  12. ^ Providence, RI : The Islands
  13. ^ The Pages of Shades : Native Americans
  14. ^ Jamestown & Newport, RI History
  15. ^ A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, p. 16
  16. ^ History of the Mohegans
  17. ^ History of the Niantic
  18. ^ pgs. 18–25 History of Pilgrims and Puritans, Volume 3 by Joseph Dillaway Sawyer, published in 1922
  19. ^ Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of State; Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of State; retrieved on October 23, 2007
  20. ^ Caulkins, Frances Manwaring (1895). History of New London, Connecticut. p. 293. 
  21. ^ De Kay, Tertius (1990). The Battle of Stonington. p. 293. 
  22. ^ a b "Historic Light Station Information and Photography: Rhode Island". United States Coast Guard Historian's Office. Retrieved October 23, 2007. 
  23. ^ The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island - Block Island; The Nature Conservancy; retrieved on October 30, 2007
  24. ^ "RI BLOCK ISLAND STATE AP". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved June 20, 2013. 
  25. ^ "Block Island State AP, Rhode Island". Western Regional Climate Center. Retrieved June 20, 2013. 
  26. ^ Block Island South East Lighthouse National Historic Landmark Nomination; National Park Service Maritime Heritage Program; retrieved on October 23, 2007
  27. ^ Daytripper's Guide: Block Island; University of Rhode Island Sea Grant; retrieved on October 22, 2007
  28. ^ "Rodman's Hollow". Retrieved 2007-10-05. 
  29. ^ "Block Island National Wildlife Refuge". Retrieved 2007-10-05. 
  30. ^ Robert M. Downie (1998). Block Island—The Sea. , page 194
  31. ^ "Probe into scuba instructor death could take two months". Retrieved 2007-07-23. 
  32. ^ The ferry services or private water transport are the only transportation options to and from Block Island when inclement weather prohibits flying to the Block Island Airport. Besides New England Airlines, the island airport is used mainly by small, privately owned aircraft, with a huge increase in activity at the airport during the summer months when many of the grass areas around the aprons and taxiways are used to park aircraft. The airport is officially called Block Island State (code: BID) and has a single, paved 2,501-foot-long runway, in an east–west orientation. The airport elevation is 108 ft above sea level and the terminal is about one mile from the town center. There have been several fatal air crashes over the years on Block Island. On August 26, 1995, a Cessna 185 seaplane carrying four people crashed while attempting to land for the third time in the waters off of Old Harbor Beach, an area not normally used for seaplane landings. The plane cleared a dune but hit a power line causing it to crash into a restaurant, G.R. Sharkeys, and hitting a car at the islands only gas station. All four people on the plane perished as well as one person on the ground. Nobody was hurt at the restaurant, which was destroyed by the impact of the plane and resulting fire, but a woman was killed sitting in her car as it was being fueled. The plane severely damaged the gas station when it crashed but the two pumps did not explode. On July 5, 2006, a plane carrying three people crashed about 1/2 mile west of the airport during bad weather. The aircraft had just taken off and was on its way to White Plains, New York, and carried a prominent surgeon, his wife, and mother. "New England Airlines". Retrieved 2007-12-12. 
  33. ^ British Admiralty. The Mariner's Handbook. 1999 edition, page 23.
  34. ^ The Block Island Times; The Block Island Times; retrieved on October 30, 2007
  35. ^ Shipwrecks - Northern Maritime Research - Northern Shipwrecks Database - Famous Shipwrecks of the Last 400 Years; Northern Maritime Research; retrieved on October 30, 2007
  36. ^ Martin, Douglas (August 15, 2009). "K. H. Bacon, an Advocate For Refugees, Is Dead at 64". The New York Times. Retrieved August 16, 2009. 
  37. ^ Whitman, Herbert S. (1982). Elizabeth Dickens: The Bird Lady of Block Island. Still Pond Press. 
  38. ^ Kuffner, Alex (5 January 2010). "Block Islanders comment on wind farm proposal". Providence Journal. Retrieved 20 June 2013. 
  39. ^ Gregor, Alison (11 June 2008). "Taking summer refuge at Block Island". Newsday. Retrieved 2014-10-02. 

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