Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse

Edgartown, Massachusetts - 1873 (1828**)

Photo of the Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse.

History of the Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-12-21.

The first settlement of the eastern end of Martha's Vineyard took place in 1642 when Thomas Mayhew set foot upon the shores of its "great harbor" and took possession of the land. When settlers first put down roots in the town, no official name was necessary as it was the only white settlement on the island and when he would sign letters, he would simply sign them with "Uppon the Vyneyard."

Eventually, more settlers came to the island and reorganization of the island's government was necessary. In July of 1671, it was put before Thomas Mayhew that he would either have to use the name "Great Harbor" or choose another name for his settlement.

At the time, it was a common practice to name towns in the new world after the reigning monarch from the homeland. Many speculate that the name Edgartown came from the fourth son of King James, Edgar, born September 14, 1667. The young prince would never learn of the town named after him, as he died one month before the town naming on June 8, 1671 at the age of four. Do to the slow nature of communication back then, it is likely that Mayhew didn't know of the young prince's death when the name was selected.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the whaling industry was prominent amongst the islands in Massachusetts. The settlements of Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket were some of the busiest whaling ports in the state. Before the American Revolution, the two islands housed one-quarter of America's whaling fleet.

By the early 1800s, the whaling industry was thriving, and more than 100 men of Edgartown were captains of whaling ships. Most captains lived in elegant homes on North Water Street, many of which are still standing today.

1828 Edgartwon Harbor Lighthouse 1828 Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)

A lighthouse ten miles to the east of Edgartown at Cape Poge was established in 1801; however, this did not serve well to mark the inner harbor at Edgartown. To rectify the situation, Congress appropriated $5,500 for a lighthouse at Edgartown Harbor in 1828.

The federal government purchased a plot of land from Seth Vincent for $80. Winslow Lewis was contracted to construct the station. Mr. Bowker, working for Lewis, constructed a two-story Cape Cod style house built just offshore upon wooden piles in shallow water. A lantern protruded from the middle of the gabled roof. Inside the lantern were ten lamps with 14-inch reflectors showing a fixed white light visible for 14 miles.

Original plans called for a wooden causeway to connect the offshore dwelling to the mainland. However, of the $5,500 appropriated for the project, the dwelling and tower took up $4,000 leaving insufficient funds for the causeway. The first keeper, Jeremiah Pease, had to row back to the mainland when he needed to come ashore.

Keeper Pease only had to row to the station for two years because the wooden causeway was built in 1830 at a cost of $2,500. Locally, the causeway came to be known as the "Bridge of Sighs." As men were about to head to sea, sometimes for years, they would walk the bridge their wives or girlfriends who would sigh with despair. In December of that year, ice carried away a forty foot section of the bridge. This wouldn't be the last time the pier would need work.

Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender visited many lighthouses in the northeast to provide inspection reports. He visited the Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse in 1838 and provided the following report:

Edgartown Harbor light - This light is on the keeper's dwelling, at the end of a short wooden breakwater in the harbor of Edgartown. Cape Poge light, 4 miles outside, is the guide to the harbor, so that the light on the breakwater requires to be of very little magnitude; yet I found the same number of lamps burning here as in the most exposed situations in the district. It is true only 7 of the 10 were fronting the sea, the other 3 being so placed as to reflect their light, to no useful purpose, towards the shore. I recommend the suppression of 6 of these lamps, and the compact arrangement of the remaining 4 to suit the approach to the breakwater. In case it should be objected that this light, not being large and striking, might not be sufficiently contrasted with the lights on board the shipping and on shore, red chimneys or tube-glasses might be used, a mode of making colored lights only exceptionable from the liability of those articles to break, when a white light would, of course, be reflected. It cannot be long before Government will have to reconstruct this breakwater and light-house, as the worms have made great havoc with them, and the sea threatens them, particularly the latter, with total destruction. When that time shall arrive, I recommend the permanent conversion of this light to a red one, consisting of the present proposed number of lamps.

A report of 1843 by I.W.P. Lewis, Winslow Lewis's nephew, highlighted many problems with the lighthouse and wooden causeway:

A wooden frame dwelling-house, with lantern erected on the ridge. This house stands at the extremity of a trestle bridge, fifteen hundred feet long, which has been magnified into a breakwater. The house was erected on piles, but these giving way, and letting the chimneys overboard, it became necessary to construct a stone pier for its support. This pier was built three years since, is a square block of rough-split stone, filled in with ballast, has settled thirteen inches out of level on the east side, probably from the absence of grillage or other foundation, but answers a better purpose than the original plan of piling. The house is two stories high, three rooms on first floor, and two chambers above, boarded and shingled outside, and plastered within, except one room on the first floor, and the chamber entry. The frame of the house is decayed in several places, plastering cracked and fallen or in large patches, roof and sides of house leaky, and lantern rickety.
Mo< Inside the report, there was a statement by Sylvanus Crocker, keeper of the lighthouse at the time. He also served as a carpenter on the crew that constructed the lighthouse.

I was appointed keeper of this light in March, 1841, upon a salary of $350 per annum. The light-house is a frame building, standing upon a pier about 1,800 feet from the shore, and connected therewith by a causeway made of piles, &c. The light-house and causeway were built in 1828 by Mr. Bowker, as agent for Winslow Lewis, the contractor for the work. I was employed upon the work as a carpenter. The whole structure was badly done. The light-house originally stood upon a wooden pier; three years ago it was necessary to replace this with one of stone, the old pier being entirely decayed and rotten. The frame of the house was light and weak, and the building always leaky. The lantern stands upon the roof of the house, and is shaken by the force of storms, causing other leaks in the roof. The plastering is off the walls in several places, and one room, together with the upper entry, never was plastered at all by the builder. There are ten lamps in the lantern, one of which has always faced the door, so as to have been entirely useless for fourteen years. The lantern leaks all about the door and the angles of it. During the gale of October last, it shook so that I had great difficulty in keeping my light burning. There is no rain-water cistern connected with the establishment, all they used for cleaning, &c., being brought from the shore. The cause-way has been knocked to pieces five or six times, and has been an expensive concern to keep in sufficient order to cross it with safety. It is my opinion, the whole establishment was very badly built in the first place.

Per the report of I.W.P. Lewis and the testimony of Keeper Crocker, a new stone breakwater was constructed in 1847 at a cost of $4,700.

Keeper appointment was very much affected by politics and the controlling party. Keeper Jeremiah Pease, a Democrat was twice removed from his position by the Whig party. He was replaced by Sylvanus Crocker who kept the light from 1841-1843 and again from 1849-1853. An inspection that took place in 1850 showed that due to the poor condition of the station, it was unoccupied. Instead, Keeper Crocker was living a short distance from the lighthouse in his own housing.

Like most lighthouses in the 1850s, the Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse received upgraded optics in 1856. Installed were a new lamp and fourth-order Fresnel lens. Other repairs and upgrades took place over the years as well. In 1878, the lighthouse was re-shingled and had new weatherboarding installed on the west side. Documents are unclear, however, in either 1883 or 1885, the dwelling was rehabilitated, the bridge between the station and shore was repaired, and a 9 by 28 foot storage building was constructed.

Several years would pass before any other upgrades would come to the station. The bridge between the station and shore would once again need repairs in 1896. At this time, a well was established to provide water for the keeper and an iron oil house was erected to provide storage for kerosene due to its volatility.

At the turn of the century, it appears that the dwelling received a new floor and pipes were run to provide water to the dwelling. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1900 had the following entry:

163. Edgartown, north side of the inner harbor of Edgartown, Mass - The dwelling standing on a pier of dry stone masonry, was provided with a new lower floor containing an intermediate layer of mortar, and 900 running feet of pipe was laid to the well. Minor repairs were made.

By the summer of 1938, the 110-year-old structure was showing its age. The superintendent of the district, George E. Eaton, had announced to locals that the lighthouse would be replaced with a steel skeletal tower calling the structure "a rat-infested box."

Locals protested, circulating a petition to keep the structure intact and in place. Before the Bureau of Lighthouses could get a chance to take the lighthouse down, the Great Hurricane of 1938 did the job. The structure sustained massive damage and was torn down the following year by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Rather than replace the demolished lighthouse with a nondescript steel skeletal tower, the Coast Guard had another plan. In Ipswich, north of Boston, the Coast Guard was having a problem at the Ipswich Range Lights at Crane Beach.

At the Ipswich Range Lighthouses, the front range was in poor condition and decommissioned several years earlier in 1932. The rear range lighthouse was experiencing an accumulation of sand around its base. So much so that maintenance personnel had to enter the tower through a window higher up the tower.

Plans that were put in place to remove the lighthouse from Crane Beach didn't sit well with the locals. Many letters were sent in protest, but the tower was still removed. The 45-foot cast-iron rear range lighthouse dating to 1881 was dismantled and floated by barge to Edgartown Harbor on Martha's Vineyard.

Of the cast iron towers that were constructed in the 1880s, most were lined with brick to provide stability and insulating qualities. For access to the lantern, most had a spiral staircase installed. However, that would not be the case at Edgartown.

Since the lighthouse was automated and access to the lantern was infrequent, the Coast Guard mounted a ladder inside the tower. Octave Ponsart was the keeper of the West Chop Lighthouse, and was assigned to oversee the Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse when necessary.

In 1985, the Coast Guard refurbished the lighthouse which included repairing gun shots to the tower, sandblasting, and painting. At the same time, the lighthouse was leased to Vineyard Environmental Research Institute. A new plastic optic was installed in 1990 when the lighthouse was converted to solar power.

The lease of the tower was transferred to the Dukes County Historical Society in 1994 which is now known as the Martha's Vineyard Museum. Rick Harrington, whose son passed away at the age of 16 in a car accident, brought forth the idea to create a children's memorial at the lighthouse.

Matthew Stackpole, the executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society and Craig Dripps, a board member, mounted a fund raising campaign to restore the lighthouse and establish the memorial. As the base that surrounded the tower had fallen into disrepair, it was decided that it would become the memorial.

To start, the base was rebuilt and enlarged with 3,500 granite cobblestones with most stones designed to hold a child's name. The stones are laid parallel to the shoreline in a pattern meant to evoke the rhythm of waves. Granite lines emanate out from to the tower to the points of a compass meant to simulate the beams of light produced by the lighthouse.

The memorial was established in 2001, and to date contains 701 names from not only the Martha's Vineyard, but from all over. Stones can be purchased for $250, and although the memorial is geared towards children, the group has accepted the occasional request for an adult with the idea that "everyone is somebody's child." An annual Ceremony of Remembrance is held each fall.

In 2007, the Martha's Vineyard Museum received the Edgartown Community Preservation Act which provided funds to renovate and restore the lighthouse. The following year, a spiral staircase was installed which allowed the tower to be open for climbing.

The Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse makes several brief appearances in the 1975 movie "Jaws," the 1978 movie "Jaws 2," and the 1995 movie "Sabrina."


  1. America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
  2. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  3. The Lighthouses of New England - 1716-1973, Edward Rowe Snow, 1973.
  4. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  5. The Lighthouse Handbook: New England: The Original Field Guide, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2008.
  6. Architecture and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Boston: Harvard's H. Langford Warren, Maureen Meister, 2003.

Directions:Parking for the light is at the intersection of North Water Street and Starbuck Neck Road. There you will see a path to walk to the lighthouse.

Access: The lighthouse is owned by the town of Edgartown. The Martha's Vineyard Museum manages the lighthouse. The grounds are open. The tower is open in season.

View more Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 45.00'
Focal Plane: 45'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 41.39100 N
*Longitude: -70.50300 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.