September 27, 2021

Pomham Rocks Lighthouse’s Antique Beacon Welcomed Home

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Built on an island in Narragansett Bay in 1871, Pomham Rocks Lighthouse is celebrating its 150th birthday in a special way. Its antique classic fourth order Fresnel lens, the iconic lighthouse beacon, removed from the tower in 1974, was returned the first week of September. It will be the focal point of the lighthouse’s museum exhibit. It is one of only about 250 fourth order lenses in existence in the United States. Only two others can be seen in museums in RI.

The return home was a bittersweet journey for Dennis Tardiff. As a young U.S. Coast Guardsman, Tardiff received his first assignment at Pomham Rocks Lighthouse in 1971, the year that it turned 100. There was no hoopla or celebration, just two weeks on and one week off, with a three-man crew performing official keeper duties, including maintaining the fourth order Fresnel lens in the tower. He left the year the lens left, in 1974, when the Coast Guard decommissioned the light station. As Officer-in-Charge, Tardiff handed over the keys to The Lighthouse to the civilian family which next occupied it. Now, 50 years later, as The Lighthouse turns 150, Tardiff is Chair of the Board of Directors of Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse, the volunteer group that has restored and maintains the lighthouse. He was instrumental in facilitating discussions with the U.S. Coast Guard, which owns the lens, and Custom House Maritime Museum, where it was displayed for 46 years. Those discussions ultimately resulted in its return home.

One of only a handful of Coast Guard certified lampists in the country, Kurt Fosburg brought a wealth of knowledge and experience and a Jeep full of tools to Riverside in early September. The Michigan owner of Superior Lighthouse Restoration, he has restored more than 100 Fresnel lenses across the country. He was entrusted to move, repair, clean and polish the antique optical equipment. Every job is unique, he noted, and has it challenges. Lifting the 225-pound glass lens off a four-foot-high platform in the Newburyport museum and carting it down the granite steps of the 1835 Custom House took a well-designed plan, teamwork and a lot of muscle. The lens was placed on the base of a wooden crate that Fosburg created for the historic transfer. Once cushioned in protective wrap and quilts, the moving crate was assembled around the beehive-shaped lantern and was carried, Egyptian-style, on two wooden poles. Assisting in this effort were two Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mates from nearby Coast Guard Station Merrimack River. Board members of Custom House Maritime Museum and Pomham Rocks Lighthouse were on hand to witness the transfer. Upon arrival in Riverside, RI, the same technique was used to transport the lens to the volunteer group’s boat, and after arriving on the island, to bring it into the lighthouse.

Fosburg installed the Fresnel lens on a pedestal in Pomham’s lighthouse museum. A replica brass oil lamp, which he made, was placed inside. The lamp originally produced the light inside the lens. Creating replicas of lamps and pedestals is another one of Fosburg’s areas of expertise. In 2019, he built the rotating lens pedestal and lamp for the Academy Award nominated motion picture, “The Lighthouse,” starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.

The 175-pound steel and brass pedestal that the Fresnel lens is now displayed on, was brought down from Pomham’s tower using a block and tackle technique. It is the same pedestal that held this lens from the time it first arrived at Pomham Rocks around 1926 until it was removed in 1974. To replace it, Fosburg created a replica of a pedestal, similar to one that would have held Pomham’s first lens, a smaller sixth order Fresnel lens, when it was first lit on December 1, 1871. The replica pedestal now holds the LED light installed and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard as an active aid to navigation.

“This is a beautiful fourth order Fresnel lens,” Fosburg stated. “My job is to restore it and stabilize it,” he said, as he masterfully removed decades-old paint drips and applied a crystal-clear solution to resolidify the letharge, the putty-like substance holding the 54 pieces of glass in the brass frame. Everybody loves lighthouses, he noted. But lighthouses are really all about lenses, he explained. The house was there only for the keeper and his family. And the keeper was there only to tend to the light. It was the multiple glass prisms of the lens that bent all the light to produce one strong beam that provided safety for those at sea. And it was Augustin-Jean Fresnel who created this revolutionary specialized lens.

Working hand in hand with the lampist was Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse Vice Chair Alex Dias. It was Dias who led the search for a lampist. Classic Fresnel lenses are rare, fragile and require expert care. They can only be moved and restored by a U.S. Coast Guard-certified lampist. In 1871 when Pomham Rocks Lighthouse was built, there were hundreds of active lighthouses lit by Fresnel lenses in the country, and the United States Lighthouse Service employed lampists to care for them. A century and a half later, the number of both has declined sharply. Dias researched and provided essential information for the fabrication of replica pieces and construction of the display platform. As one of the final steps for display, he carefully positioned the red glass chimney, which produced Pomham’s distinctive glow, on the replica oil lamp and placed it inside the restored lens. In constant communication with the lampist in preparation for the move, he also volunteered as his assistant on the job. As Chair of the Museum Committee, Dias considers Pomham’s Fresnel lens as the showpiece of the museum’s collection and a valuable tool for educating visitors.

Jeremy D’Entremont, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), and his wife, Charlotte, drove down from Maine to witness and chronicle the final stages of lens restoration. In 2010, ExxonMobil donated Pomham Rocks Lighthouse and the island it occupies to the Foundation, the national organization dedicated to preserving lighthouses. Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse is a chapter of ALF. Historian for the U.S. Lighthouse Society, D’Entremont is author or co-author of more than 20 books. First-time visitors to the newly restored lighthouse, the D’Entremonts admired the attention to historic detail throughout the building.

At the completion of the project, with Pomham’s Fresnel lens bolted to its highly polished original pedestal, volunteers who had helped facilitate the move and Kurt Fosburg, the lampist who had meticulously planned and implemented the process, made a circle around the newly restored lens.

Dave Kelleher, one of founders of Friends of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse, led the group in a champagne toast, honoring all, who since 2004 have helped make this moment possible, giving thanks for the return of Pomham’s lens – the soul of the lighthouse – and pledging to preserve and care for it forever. Public tours of the lighthouse are planned for 2022.

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