Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-12-21.
There are two prominent points of land that mark the entrance to Holmes Hole, now known as Vineyard Haven Harbor on the island of Martha's Vineyard. They are marked by the East Chop and West Chop Lighthouses. The word Chop (or Chap) is an old English term adopted in the seventeenth century to describe the entrance to a river, bay, or harbor.
Although the West Chop Lighthouse was built and in use as early as 1817, a light for the eastern chop wouldn't come until 1869. Originally, the eastern chop was a semaphore station utilizing a series of flags to announce ships arriving at various ports earning the location the name of "Telegraph Hill."
Circa 1890, Courtesy Martha's Vineyard Museum
A local mariner, Captain Silas Daggett, lobbied for a lighthouse on the eastern bluff, but the government ignored his request feeling that a single light on the western side was enough for the location.
In 1869, Captain Daggett with the private funding of maritime insurance companies and other coast-wise commercial interests, established a private aid to navigation on the eastern bluff or chop of Holmes Hole. The lighthouse burned down in 1871 and was promptly rebuilt by Captain Daggett as a light on top of a house again with private funds.
The Lighthouse Board, realizing the importance of the station, had loaned Captain Daggett three 21-inch reflectors for use in his lighthouse. The following entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1872 was the first mention of the East Chop station:
---. Holmes's Hole, (East Chop,) Massachusetts - A private light-station near Holmes's Hole, Vineyard Sound. Three 21-inch reflectors have been loaned to the keeper.
By the following year, the Lighthouse Board had begun planning for an official lighthouse at the location as evidenced by the entry in their annual report:
A light has been maintained for several years at this point by the subscriptions of the owners of steamships and by other private individuals. As there is no doubt as to the utility of the light, it is recommended that an appropriation for erecting a fourth-order light be made.
It would take a few years, but finally on March 3, 1875 Congress appropriated $5,000 for a proper lighthouse at the location. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1875 had the following entry:
East Chop, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts - An appropriation of $5,000 was made by act approved March 3, 1875, for establishing a light at this place, and negotiations have been entered into for the purpose of securing a site.
The old lighthouse, described as little better than a shanty, was torn down, and Captain Silas Daggett returned to his life at sea. A new conical cast-iron tower standing 40 feet tall and a one-and-a-half-story keeper's house was erected in 1878. The tower, consisting of cast-iron segments, was bolted together, and then lined with brick to provide insulation and stability.
When completed, the tower was painted white and was outfitted with a 1000-candlepower fourth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light which was visible for 20 miles out to sea. Around 1881 or 1882, a brick-lined cess pool was built and 90 feet of drain pipe were laid to improve sanitary conditions at the station. Sometime later in that decade, the tower was painted reddish-brown and locals nicknamed it "the chocolate lighthouse." After that, it appears that only minor repairs were made to the station as there were no entries in the annual reports.
Finally in the mid-1890s some entries appear. In 1895 a storm porch was added over the tower entrance and in 1897 an oil house was erected to store the more volatile kerosene which was used to illuminate the tower.
To improve the light, it was changed from a fixed white to a flashing red and white in 1898. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
156. East Chop, entrance to Vineyard Haven Harbor, Massachusetts - The fixed white light was improved by changing it to a flashing red.
Very few changes were made over the years. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1904 lists the boundary fences as being repaired.
East Chop Lighthouse Archive Photo
George Walter Purdy was keeper from 1902 to 1934 after moving over from the Sankaty Head and Gay Head Lighthouses. Purdy, a former lobsterman, had lost an arm while on duty aboard the lighthouse tender Azalea, and had transferred to a job as lighthouse keeper.
Purdy's daughter, Alice Purdy Ray, in an interview years later had recalled how nice the keeper's house was despite the weather, how her father had a cow, and the family's vegetable gardens. When the lighthouse was automated in 1934, the Purdy family was offered a chance to stay in the house for $100 a month rent. When they refused, the government had the house and oil shed torn down.
Octave Ponsart became keeper of the West Chop Lighthouse in 1946. Along with his duties of keeping the light at West Chop, he also had to periodically check on the automated lighthouses at East Chop, Edgartown Harbor, and Cape Poge, which were all nearby.
The town of Oak Bluffs purchased the land that surrounds the lighthouse in 1957 to establish a park. In 1962, the flash characteristic was changed to flash every six seconds. The original fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed in 1984 and replaced with a 300mm plastic optic.
The tower lost its reddish-brown color in 1988 when inspectors found that the dark color absorbed sunlight in the summer causing condensation and rust to form. It was returned to the original white color.
The Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (VERI) licensed the East Chop, Gay Head, and Edgartown Harbor Lighthouses from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1985. The license granted the group the protection and maintenance of the towers. The license was the first of its kind in the country for active lighthouses. The group opened the tower to visitors in 1990.
The Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, now called the Martha's Vineyard Museum, became the stewards of the trio of lighthouses in 1994. The East Chop Lighthouse is open during the summer on Sundays.
Directions: From Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, take New York Ave. north West to East Chop Drive. Take East Chop Drive north east to the lighthouse.
Access:The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Martha's Vineyard Museum manages the lighthouse and conducts scheduled tours. The grounds are open.View more East Chop Lighthouse pictures