Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-12-30.
When the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold first laid eyes on the picturesque multi-colored 130-foot cliffs that graced the headland on the western end of Martha's Vineyard in 1602, he called it Dover Cliff, likening it to the Cliffs of Dover along the English Channel.
The name never stuck. Instead, the area became known as Gay Head after the brightly colored hues that the cliffs seemed to take on in the ever changing light. It would still be almost 200 years before there would be a lighthouse to mark the headland.
Maritime traffic through Vineyard Sound between Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands was increasing steadily by the late 1700s. In 1796, Massachusetts Senator Peleg Coffin of Nantucket wrote to his Congressman in Washington requesting a lighthouse be constructed at Gay Head for "the convenience and interest of Nantucket."
Many speculate that the reason for this was that the passage through Vineyard Sound was the safest route into Nantucket Harbor. However, the area houses a long underwater obstruction named "Devil's Bridge" which can make the passage treacherous. A lighthouse would provide safety and greatly assist offshore whaling and cargo vessels on their approach to Vineyard Sound.
Senator Coffin's request was honored and Congress appropriated $5,750 on July 16, 1798. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts deeded two acres and four rods to the Federal Government. President John Adams approved a contract with Martin Lincoln of Hingham to erect the station.
Constructed upon a stone base would be a 47-foot tall octagonal wooden lighthouse. Ancillary buildings were also constructed at that time, including a wood-framed keeper's house, a barn, and an oil vault. The lamps in the lantern were most likely "spider" lamps, which consisted of several wicks in a shallow pan filled with whale oil.
The first keeper to serve at the Gay Head Lighthouse was Ebenezer Skiff appointed on November 7. The lighthouse was put into service a little over a week later on the night of November 18, 1799. Keeper Skiff was the first white man to live in the town of Gay Head, which was populated by the Wampanoag Indians.
Twice during his tenure, once in 1805 and again in 1815, Skiff wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury and asked for a raise due to harsh conditions he faced. Both times, an increase of $50 per year was authorized. Although conditions at the location were severe, Keeper Skiff would serve at the lighthouse for 29 years. He would augment his income over the years with farming and teaching the native children. When he left, he was making $350 per year, more than most keepers serving at the time.
Captain Winslow Lewis, an inventor, sea captain, and contractor, had designed and patented a new system of lighting based on Argand lamps that utilized reflectors. In 1812, he sold the rights to Congress. With that, came the contract to equip all 49 lighthouses in the United States with the lamps.
The Gay Head Lighthouse was one off the first to be changed over, which occurred in October of 1812. It received ten lamps backed with 14-inch reflectors mounted to a chandelier that revolved every four minutes giving mariners the appearance of a "flash."
The tower stood 160 feet above sea level which often caused the light to be obscured by fog. To remedy the situation, it was lowered by 14 feet, although the year that this was done is unclear. By 1837, the upper half of the tower was in poor condition due to rotten wood. The tower underwent extensive repairs in 1838 which included the removal of a rotten three-foot wooden section and the addition of a new lantern and deck constructed by a New Bedford blacksmith.
Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender toured many New England lighthouses to evaluate them and produced a report. The following was his entry on the Gay Head Lighthouse:
Gay Head light - This is a revolving light, at the entrance to Vineyard sound, on the western extremity of Martha's Vineyard island, 160 feet above the level of the sea. It is of the same size, and on the same plan (except that it revolves in four, instead of three and a half minutes) as that at Race point. These reflectors have been much injured by the use of short chimneys. The pilots inform me that this light is constantly seen by them upwards of twenty miles; being one of the exterior line of lights, it admits not of the least reduction. This lantern is seven feet high and seven wide, larger than is necessary, and has inferior glass in it. The tower, which is of wood, has lately undergone extensive repairs, during which the light was suspended. It strikes me that the interests of commerce would justify the erection of a temporary building in such cases. Where it was a fixed light, nothing would be easier than to perpetuate it in such a lantern as is used in the light-boats, sufficiently elevated for the purpose. Premises in good order.
Several years later, I.W.P. Lewis, Winslow Lewis's nephew visited the station in the fall of 1842 to report on it. His report pointed out the dilapidated condition of the dwelling and tower, and recommended that both be replaced:
"Octagonal wooden frame tower, thirty feet high, with stone underpinning. The frame work is decayed in several places, and a new tower is required here, and also a new dwelling-house, the present one being a frame building contemporary with the tower, both forty three years old."
Ellis Skiff, the keeper of the Gay Head Lighthouse had made statements in I.W.P. Lewis's report dated October 6, 1842. In the statement, he mentions how the ground had given way on the north side of the tower and that he made efforts to pry it up. He then mentions that the south side shifted which pulled the tower out of perpendicular.
To remedy the situation, the tower was moved back about 75 feet from the eroding bluff in 1844. A local contractor from Edgartown named John Mayhew performed the work for $366.87.
The year 1852 brought about big changes in the oversight of the nation's aids to navigation. A new board was established by Congress called the Light House Board, and was made up of engineers, and Navy personnel, which would replace Stephen Pleasonton, the fifth auditor of the Treasury.
When the Lighthouse Board took over in 1852, a 760-page report of the nation's lighthouses was produced. In the document, it described the Gay Head Lighthouse as "This light is not second to any on the eastern coast, and should be fitted, without delay, with a first order illuminating apparatus. A glance at the will suffice, to see its great importance."
Prior to the Lighthouse Board taking control, a bill submitted by Stephen Pleasonton appropriating $13,000 for improvements at the 1799 Gay Head Lighthouse had already been approved. The improvements came two years later in the form of a new lantern and lighting apparatus.
What was installed in late July of 1854 was a new larger lantern with plate glass windows. Inside the lantern were 13 new lamps with larger reflectors. Although the Lighthouse Board followed through with Pleasonton's directive as it was already in motion, they clearly had other plans.
Although the lighting apparatus that was installed was better than the previous outgoing equipment, it was still inferior to the Fresnel technology developed by the French. Other factors that the Lighthouse Board had taken into consideration were that the 1799 wooden tower was in decrepit condition, and the ongoing erosion occurring in the vicinity of the tower.
On August 3, 1854, just two weeks after the 1799 tower was outfitted with the new lighting apparatus, Congress approved $30,000 for a new masonry tower and keeper's dwelling, and a first-order Fresnel lens. It would take nearly a year for the government to advertise the work and select a contractor.
On July 18, 1855, Caleb King of Boston was awarded the contract to construct the new Gay Head Lighthouse and dwelling on Martha's Vineyard. Mr. King constructed a 51-foot tall conical tower with bricks composed of clay from the nearby cliffs.
Gay Head Lighthouse & Dwelling circa 1880s/1890s.
Installed in the new lantern room was a first-order Fresnel lens from Henri Lepaute of France. The lens stood over 12-feet tall, weighed several tons, and contained 1,008 hand-made crystal prisms. The clockwork mechanism attached to the lens had to be wound every four hours and produced a flash every 10 seconds. The new lighthouse went into service on the night of December 1, 1856.
General maintenance was performed on the station in 1882. Along with a fresh coat of paint applied to the tower, the roofs of the dwellings and outbuildings were reshingled, and repairs to the gutters and chimneys were made. The chimneys must have needed more work, as there was another entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board the following year stating that two chimneys were rebuilt from the roof.
Although the new tower and lens greatly increased the visibility, shipwrecks still frequently occurred. Horatio N. Pease was keeper a Gay Head Light on the night of January 19, 1884 when the City of Columbus veered off course and struck the Devil's Bridge at 3:45am on route from Boston to Savannah.
The captain, in a struggle to free the ship, shut down the ship's engines, and attempted to reverse off the ledge. The holes in the hull quickly began to fill with water. Within twenty minutes, the ship went down taking with it 102 souls.
Assistant Keeper Frederick Poole had spotted a light from the wreck around 5:00am. Keeper Horatio N. Pease and a volunteer crew of Wampanoag Indians launched a boat in an attempt to rescue survivors. Soon after, the revenue cutter Dexter arrived on scene to assist. Of the 126 people on board, only 24 survived making it one of the worst maritime disasters in New England.
More repairs to the station took place in 1886. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
102. Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard Island, west entrance to Vineyard Sound, Massachusetts - The old lining was removed from the dome of the lantern, a new roof was put on the barn, and minor repairs were made to the illuminating apparatus.
Several changes occurred in 1890. A new brick oil house measuring 11 by 16 was constructed and new keeper was assigned to the station. William Atchison, a Civil War veteran took over duties from Keeper Pease, but only lasted a few months before resigning with a mysterious illness.
Keeper Atchison's replacement, Edward Lowe lasted only a year, passing away at the age of 44. His replacement, Crosby L. Crocker took over in 1892. Within 15 months of being at the station, four of his children had passed away.
It took several years to determine, but it was later decided that the commonality in each case was the keeper's dwelling. Due to its location, it was exposed to constant dampness and frequent mold. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1899 and 1900 had the following entry:
147. Gay Head, Martha Vineyard, Massachusetts - The double dwelling occupied by the keeper and his assistant, with their families, is of brick. Its floor is at a level with the ground, and prevents the raising of the grade to turn water from the clay site. Rain driven against walls and running down them into the ground is retained by the impervious soil, and keeps the cellars and unexcavated ground under building and the lower rooms so damp that mold and mildew gather on the walls of the rooms and on household articles. The eaves are but nine feet from the ground, and the upper rooms are too low and ill-lighted for convenient use. The house is too damp and unsanitary for safe occupation by human beings. It is estimated that it can be rebuilt, at a cost not exceeding $6,500, and the Board recommends that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
As the wheels of government move slowly, it would take a year or so for the dwelling to be rebuilt. The new dwelling, completed in 1902, was built on a higher foundation to ensure it stayed dry. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1902 had the following entry:
152. Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts - The double dwelling and barn were rebuilt. The grounds around the dwelling were filled in, graded, and sodded. Various repairs were made.
Despite losing his four children while serving at the station, Keeper Crosby L. Crocker stayed on as keeper until his retirement in 1920. The station, running on kerosene since 1885, was converted over to electricity in 1952.
Lighthouse & 1902 Dwelling circa 1950.
At this time, the first-order Fresnel lens was removed from the tower and donated to the Dukes County Historical Society, now the Martha's Vineyard Museum. Today, the lens is on display in what resembles the upper portion of a tower and lantern on the ground of the Museum in Edgartown.
The lighthouse was fully automated in 1956. At that time, the keeper's dwelling was torn down. The Vineyard Environmental Research Institute leased three lighthouses, Gay Head, West Chop, and Edgartown, from the Coast Guard in 1985.
The group had started formalizing plans to open the lighthouse to the public. Some repairs were performed in 1989 and at the same time, the light was upgraded to a DCB-224 rotating aerobeacon. The grounds and tower were finally opened to the public on May 13, 1990.
Today, like many of its Cape Cod neighbors such as the Highland Lighthouse in Truro and the Nauset Lighthouse in Eastham, the tower is under attack from coastal erosion, losing about two feet per year. Both the Highland and Nauset lighthouses were moved in 1996.
Another neighbor, the Sankaty Head Lighthouse on nearby Nantucket Island, was also in danger of being lost to erosion. The tower was moved approximately 400 feet inland in October 2007. The Gay Head Lighthouse is presently 46 feet from the edge of the cliffs.
Today, the Save Gay Head Lighthouse Committee (SGHLC) has been formed and is moving forward with preparations to the save the lighthouse. Plans are in place for the town of Aquinnah to acquire the tower from the U.S. Coast Guard via the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.
The SGHLC is working with International Chimney Corporation to identify a suitable location in which to move the 400-ton structure. If everything goes according to plan, the move will take in the fall of 2014. The group approximates the cost for the move at around $3,000,000.
The lighthouse was briefly shown in the 1975 movie "Jaws."
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- The Lighthouse Handbook: New England: The Original Field Guide, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2008.
- The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
- The Lighthouses of New England - 1716-1973, Edward Rowe Snow, 1973.
- A History of Martha's Vineyard, Volume II, Charles Edward Banks, M.D., 1911.
Directions:The lighthouse is at the extreme western end of Martha's Vineyard. From Chilmark, follow State Road to the end. The lighthouse is in Aquinnah Circle.
Access: The U.S. Coast Guard owns the tower. The Martha's Vineyard Museum currently manages the tower. The grounds are open. The tower is open during scheduled tours.
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