The Martha's Vineyard Museum has provided this history:
1796 Peleg Coffin of Nantucket wrote to his Congressman in Washington requesting a lighthouse at Gay Head for "the convenience and interest of Nantucket." The reason for this may be that the safest route to Nantucket Harbor was through Vineyard Sound into Nantucket Sound. A beacon at Gay Head would greatly assist offshore whaling and cargo vessels in their approach to Vineyard Sound and help prevent running onto "Devil's Bridge" in the process.
1799 The Commonwealth of Massachusetts deeded two acres and four rods to the Federal Government for the site of the lighthouse. President John Adams approved a contract with Martin Lincoln of Hingham to build a wooden lighthouse structure and a keeper's cottage and outbuildings. Ebenezer Skiff was appointed keeper and on November 7th the light was turned on for the first time. It most likely had a "spider" lamp of several wicks in a shallow circular pan filled with sperm whale oil.
1813 Argand-type lamps were installed by Captain Winslow Lewis, who was under contract with the government to upgrade the lights of 49 US lighthouses. He had "invented" a new system, using the French lamps. However, the true effectiveness of his system was often questioned. There were ten lamps, each with a reflector, mounted to a chandelier that revolved every four minutes.
1837 The top of the lighthouse needed to be replaced. There was considerable rot in the wooden structure and the lantern and railing areas were very rusted. While the work was done, the light was out.
1838 In October, Josiah Sturgis from the Revenue Cutter Hamilton reported: "On our recent cruise we visited Gay Head and I was pleased to see there was a new top lantern and frame. As far as I am capable of judging, I should say the work is well done. Gay Head Light is considered a very important light by Mariners. I perceive the Bank near the light house is settling away and I suppose in a few years the light will have to be removed."
1844 The light tower was moved back from the cliff edge 75 feet by John Mayhew of Edgartown at a cost of $386.87.
1852 "The [lighthouse] board produced a 760-page report that...stated that 'this light is not second to any on the eastern coast, and should be fitted, without delay, with a first order illuminating apparatus...' Thus, Gay Head took its place among the top navigational aids in America and the wheels of government began turning, shortly to bring to the Island the First Order Fresnel lens, the one now displayed on the Society's grounds." Art Railton, Dukes County Intelligencer Vol. 23 #3.
1853 The Vineyard Gazette in August reports from Samuel Flanders, Keeper, that: "Gay Head is to have a new lighthouse, 5 or 6 rods back from the present one... a new dwelling house is also to be erected." Thirteen thousand dollars was appropriated to accomplish the building projects as well as make improvements to the light apparatus.
1854 By July the light had been upgraded to 14 lamps and larger reflectors. However, the previously dim Gay Head light was now bright enough to be confused with the 2nd order Fresnel lens that was in the Sankaty Light on Nantucket and at least one shipwreck occurred. In August, Congress approved a request for $30,000 for the total replacement of the tower, dwelling house, light, and first order Fresnel lens.
1855 The Henri Lepaute-manufactured Fresnel lens (soon to be shipped to Gay Head) wins the Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition of Industry. In July, Caleb King of Boston began construction of the new tower and dwelling.
1856 In August, The Vineyard Gazette reports: "a new light has been erected on Gay Head....The tower is built of brick and is 35 feet high. The keepers' houses are of brick also....The illuminating apparatus is a revolving Fresnel lens of the first order, showing a bright flash every 10 seconds. This light will be exhibited and lit for the first time at sundown December 1."
1874 On May 15th the light was changed from just "flashing white" to "three whites and one red" to distinguish Gay Head and eliminate confusion with any other flashes.
1902 A wooden structure replaced the brick keeper's cottage, which was deemed too damp and unsanitary for safe occupation. A number of unexplained illnesses and deaths had occurred in the old dwelling.
1920 Charles W. Vanderhoop became keeper, the first of Wampanoag heritage to do so in the light's history.
1941 The light was dimmed as a World War II defense measure.
1952 A high intensity electric beacon replaced the Fresnel lens, which was donated to and reinstalled by the Coast Guard in a new tower on the grounds of the Dukes County Historical Society (Martha's Vineyard Museum) in Edgartown.
1956 The light was fully automated and the keeper's dwelling was torn down.
1985 Three Vineyard lighthouses, structures and grounds were placed in local control (Vineyard Environmental Research Institute) while the Coast Guard continued to operate the lighting equipment. Plans were made to open the light and grounds to the public.
1990 On May 13th the light was opened to the public for the first time in 35 years.
1994 The Martha's Vineyard Historical Society (now the MVM) took on the stewardship of the Gay Head, East Chop and Edgartown Harbor Lighthouses.
Directions:Follow Aquinnah Circle to the end.
[ Home ]