Visitors to Rhode Island’s Beavertail Lighthouse can, with a sharp eye, spot a dark, misshapen mass of concrete offshore in the distance. This is all that remains of Whale Rock Lighthouse, which stood for more than a half century. The twisted foundation can also be regarded as a memorial to Walter Eberle, the keeper who lost his life in the most terrible of all 20th century New England storms.
Whale Rock Light was constructed in 1882 to help mariners past a treacherous reef near the entrance to the busy west passage of Narragansett Bay. Fifteen years before the lighthouse was built a schooner had hit the rocks, killing five of the six men aboard.
A large ring was cut into the rock to prepare for the placement of a cast-iron caisson, which was then filled with concrete. The four-story lighthouse, equipped with a fog bell, was built on top of this cylinder. Three of the levels served as living quarters for the keepers. Like the other sturdy “spark plug” type lighthouses of the era, Whale Rock Light seemed built to withstand the storms of the ages.
Isolated Whale Rock was not a desirable location for keepers, and 16 different men served as head keeper between 1882 and 1909. One keeper, Nelson Sprague, was fired for being away from the station too much of the time, leaving the assistant doing double duty.
A 1924 storm sent waves over the top of the tower and destroyed the galley’s roof. This storm was nothing compared to what was to come in 1938.
Walter Barge Eberle, assistant keeper at Whale Rock Light in 1938, was the father of six children. He was a 20-year Navy veteran and master diver. Born in Webster City, Iowa in 1898, Eberle had run away from home and lied about his age to enter the Navy at age 15. After he left the Navy, Eberle worked for a time at a Wrigley chewing gum factory in Newport, Rhode Island. He had spent some of his Navy time in the area, serving on submarines and diving for dud torpedoes around Goat Island in Newport Harbor.
Eberle’s children remember him as a loving father with a passion for the ocean. “The ocean was his life,” says his daughter Barbara Bramwell. Her sister, Dorothy Roach, adds, “He always said he would die in the ocean.” Longing to work on the ocean again, in 1937 Eberle entered the Lighthouse Service and was assigned to Whale Rock, a welcome assignment since it was close to Newport. Eberle enjoyed his lighthouse duty, and sometimes brought his older son, Walter, Jr., to the station. The family had an ample supply of crabmeat, as crabs were plentiful around the lighthouse.
On September 21, 1938, Keeper Eberle saw that the seas were growing rough around Whale Rock. Because of the conditions, he left the mainland earlier than had been scheduled to relieve Dan Sullivan at the lighthouse. With practically no advance warning, a devastating hurricane was bearing down on New England’s south facing coast. The waves grew higher and higher as the Hurricane of ‘38 battered the tower.
Eberle’s oldest surviving child, Dorothy, was 12 years old in 1938. She remembers only too well the afternoon and evening of that awful day. By mid-afternoon, when she got out of school, trees were already falling in the high winds. Arriving home, Dorothy was told that her mother had gone to see the thundering surf that could be heard from their home.
Dorothy went to Newport Beach to look for her mother. As she looked down at the beach and boardwalk arcade, she was horrified to see an enormous tidal wave sweep over the beach. The arcade was suddenly gone, along with the children that she believes were inside. Words can’t express her feelings at the time, she says.
Dorothy and the rest of her family made it home safely. All, that is, except for her father. It was a long anxious night for the Eberles. At about 5:30 in the morning, Keeper Daniel Sullivan phoned the family. His words were to the point: “The light is gone.” Dorothy remembers her mother’s reaction: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
Over 700 people died in the hurricane across New England, including five people at the lighthouse station on Rhode Island’s Prudence Island. Many days passed before the seas calmed down enough to get a boat out to Whale Rock. The lighthouse was completely gone, and to this day the tower and the body of Walter Eberle have not been found. Eberle was 40 years old and had been in the Lighthouse Service for one year.
On the Sunday following the hurricane, a well-dressed man who identified himself as Mr. Johnson came to the Eberle’s home. He said he was a psychic and that he had experienced a vision that concerned Walter Eberle. He told the family he had just helped to locate a missing girl in Bristol; unfortunately the girl was found dead. He said that he had a vision of the lighthouse collapsing. It didn’t fall over, he said — it collapsed onto itself. In the vision, Walter Eberle left the lighthouse in a boat. “Your husband got off that light,” he told Mrs. Eberle. Mr. Johnson said he didn’t want any money. He just hoped that his vision might be of some help.
Mr. Johnson’s vision may have given the Eberles some hope, but harsh reality eventually set in. Of course, it is possible that Eberle did leave the lighthouse in a boat and may not have been able to make it to shore. Evidence found at the remains of the lighthouse did indicate that the tower did indeed collapse onto itself, as Mr. Johnson had described.
The remains of the structure were removed in 1939 and an automatic light on a steel tower was erected. The spot is now marked by a lighted buoy. Walter Eberle’s wife fell ill with tuberculosis and died only two years after her husband.
Eberle’s children today have some happy memories to comfort them, like the time Eberle came home from a Navy stint with a monkey on his shoulder. His wife reacted immediately, saying “The monkey goes.” Walter Eberle enjoyed walking the beach with his children, they recall. The ocean was Walter Eberle’s life, and as he predicted it also was where he died.
There are memorials elsewhere to lighthouse keepers who have made the ultimate sacrifice, like the one at Cohasset, Massachusetts, dedicated to the two keepers who died at Minot’s Ledge Light in 1851. So far no organization has erected a memorial to Rhode Island’s Keeper Walter Eberle.
This story appeared in the
April 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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