- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. - The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 destroyed fishing villages and flooded cities, killing about 600 people when it struck with almost no warning. The impact was felt from the eastern Long Island peninsula north to Rhode Island, where entire beach communities were obliterated.

Lost in one of the nation’s worst natural disasters were Whale Rock Light, an offshore lighthouse toppled in the storm, and its keeper, Walter Eberle, a former Navy man as much enamored of the sea as he was devoted to his family.

“He was very heroic,” said Dorothy Roach, of Cape Coral, Fla., 79 and the oldest living of Mr. Eberle’s six children.

The four Eberle survivors and an underwater archaeologist are trying to piece together what happened when the hurricane struck Sept. 21, 1938. It’s a tale, they say, about devotion to duty from a man who took a job that few wanted and never abandoned his post.

All that remains of the lighthouse is its 20-foot-high concrete and granite base.

David Robinson, 41, has been intrigued by the lighthouse’s demise since he was a child. He would peer at the squarish base that, combined with the elongated rocks on either side, looked like a breaching submarine. Later, as he became a certified diver with a graduate degree in anthropology, his interest grew.

Mr. Robinson has surveyed the wreckage and wants to map the site. He’s working with the Coast Guard and community groups to document what happened there that day and honor the only lighthouse keeper to die in the storm.

On the morning of the hurricane, the forecast called for gusty winds and choppy seas. Mr. Eberle said goodbye to his wife and children and rowed out early for his multiday shift at Whale Rock Light, perched on a bedrock outcropping at the entrance to a key shipping passage.

The lighthouse was completed in 1882, two years after the passenger steamer Rhode Island ran aground nearby. The structure was placed on Whale Rock, about a half-mile from the nearest point onshore. With the beacon at Beavertail Point, it bracketed the entrance into Narragansett Bay’s West Passage.

Mr. Eberle had been working at the lighthouse for about a year, as the second assistant keeper. It was an undesirable assignment, with frequent turnover.

Whale Rock Light stood exposed to the weather and surf, unlike other lighthouses in Rhode Island that were on land or more sheltered in the bay. The keepers were isolated as well, with no way to communicate with the mainland. Their quarters were cold and cramped.

“Definitely one of the worst assignments in southern New England,” said Jeremy D’Entremont, who is writing a series of books on lighthouses in New England.

Mr. Eberle didn’t seem to mind his job, his children say, because he loved the sea and was finally closer to his family in Newport. When he was 15, he ran away from home in Webster City, Iowa, and enlisted in the Navy. He retired after 20 years and worked briefly at a chewing gum factory before taking the lighthouse job.

The four children who survive him today remember how their father took them on rides to Cape Cod and once brought a monkey back from a Navy trip to Panama.

“He was a quite a character. He was a good father,” said Barbara Bramwell, 77, of Norton, Mass., who was 10 when her father died.

About the time that Mr. Eberle was rowing out to the lighthouse, the hurricane was hurtling north at a ferocious speed. It hit that afternoon, at high tide and with a storm surge that reached 15 feet in Narragansett Bay. Mr. Robinson thinks Whale Rock Light was punched by a surge that sent the six-story structure crashing into the surf.

“It just detonated,” said Mr. Robinson, who with others is funding the story of Mr. Eberle and Whale Rock Light.

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