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 West Chop, MA    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse accessible by ferry.Active Fresnel Lens
Description: The two areas of land known as West Chop and East Chop define the harbor at Vineyard Haven, on the north shore of Martha’s Vineyard. Vineyard Haven was formerly known as Holmes Hole and was one of the earliest settlements on the island. The residents of Holmes Hole felt a bit neglected when a lighthouse was built on Cape Poge in 1801 to guide vessels into the harbor at Edgartown even though there was more ship traffic at Holmes Hole. They eventually appealed to their congressman, John Reed, for a lighthouse to mark their harbor, and on March 3, 1817 Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse “on the west chop of Holmes’ Hole Harbor.”

Four acres of land for the lighthouse were purchased at a cost of $225 from Abijah and Mary Luce of Boston, and Duncan McBean was employed to construct a twenty-five-foot rubblestone tower and an accompanying stone dwelling measuring twenty by thirty-four feet. Captain James Shaw West, a long-time resident of Holmes Hole, was hired to be the first keeper of the light, which went into service on October 5, 1817. Keeper West and his wife Charlotte were the parents of nine children when they moved into the lighthouse, though one child had already passed away. Two more children were born to the Wests while they lived at the lighthouse.

Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender visited West Chop Lighthouse while James West was still keeper and issued the following report, dated November 1, 1838, that highly praises the keepers work

The light is in a stone tower, 25 feet high, and 60 feet above the level of the sea; it consists of 10 lamps, with 13 ˝ and 15-inch reflectors, arranged in two equal series or tiers. Though an exceedingly useful light, six lamps, compactly arranged in a single series, are abundance for it. I found this light in admirable order; reflectors bright, glass perfectly clean, lamps carefully trimmed, and everything justifying the high reputation it enjoys along the coast.

West Chop Lighthouse and dwelling built in 1847
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The sea is encroaching upon this tower and dwelling, and, in the event of its becoming necessary to remove them, I recommend that the light be placed about three hundred yards further to the southward, on a site much approved by the pilots, directly opposite a shoal on which vessels are apt to strike, supposing that after they have passed the lights, to enter the harbor, they are out of danger. No less than 127 vessels have been ashore here during the twenty years this keeper has attended the light.

In 1843, Keeper West provided the following description of the station’s structures for inclusion in a report compiled by I.W.P. Lewis.

Both buildings are leaky, in consequence of the mortar with which they were built being bad. The wood work of both buildings is rotten; in consequence of the leaks in the walls. … The house is damp and cold. The inside of the house is coated with ice in the winter. The lantern sweats badly at all times, and so much so in winter as to cover the glass with ice and frost. … The bluff on which the tower stands has washed away to within 37 feet of the base, and I consider the buildings unsafe in their present position. I have known 30 feet of the bluff to wash away in one storm.

Keeper West’s appraisal of the station must have been accurate as a new conical stone tower and keeper’s house were built in 1846 about 1,000 feet southeast of the original tower. The old keeper’s dwelling was given to Gustavus West, the keeper’s son, who had it removed to Music Street in West Tisbury. The new tower was later enclosed in wooden shingles, apparently because of leakage problems. Winslow Lewis installed a new system of reflector lights in 1848, but a fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced these about a decade later. At about the same time, an additional light was exhibited from the roof of the keeper’s house, replacing a series of three range lights that had served as a guide into the harbor.

Keeper James West served for three decades at the West Chop lighthouse before resigning in 1847 and being replaced by Charles West (not a son of James). Charles West kept the light until 1868, when his son, also named Charles, succeeded him. Charles, Jr. served until 1909.

The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1882 notes that a frame engine-house was erected at the station to power a steam fog whistle An assistant keeper was needed to help with the increased work load imposed by the fog signal, so a one-and-a-half-story frame keeper’s dwelling was also built at the same time. The stone dwelling built in 1846 was torn down and replaced by a second frame dwelling in 1888.

1891 West Chop Lighthouse and two frame dwellings
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
By the 1890s, West Chop had become a popular and fashionable summer vacation spot, and the houses that had sprung up in the area were beginning to obscure the lighthouse beacon. To remedy this, a lens lantern was provided and placed atop a seventeen-foot-tall iron mast, mounted on the lantern deck. This served until the present lighthouse, a 45-foot cylindrical tower, was constructed in 1891 to replace the shorter 1847 tower. On August 20, 1891 the light was moved to a temporary tower, sixty feet from the old tower, and then on December 31, 1891, the light was placed in a new brick tower, built on the old site. This new redbrick tower was seventeen feet taller than its predecessor and was painted white in 1899.

West Chop Light was automated in 1976, the last of lights of Martha’s Vineyard to lose its resident keeper, but remains an active aid to navigation, exhibiting a white light occulting every four seconds with a red sector to cover Squash Meadow and Norton Shoal’s. A fourth-order Fresnel lens is still in use in the lantern room. The keeper’s dwellings were used as offices for the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute for a few years following automation of the station, but today, the house nearest the tower is used by the officer-in-charge of Coast Guard Station Menemash, and the second dwelling is used as a vacation house for military personnel.

On August 8, 2000, President Bill Clinton, who occasionally vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard while in office, signed the Oceans Act of 2000 on the grounds of the West Chop Lighthouse, stating, “There’s no better place to sign this legislation than here because of the long-standing links to the sea the people of Massachusetts have.”

Photo Gallery: 1 2

References

  1. The Descendants of Capt. Jeruel West and Deborah Shaw of Frog Alley, Tisbury, MA.
  2. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  3. The Lighthouses of New England, Edward Rowe Snow, 2005.
  4. Annual Report of the Light House Board, various years.

Location: Located northwest of Vineyard Haven, marking the western side of the entrance to the harbor.
Latitude: 41.48081
Longitude: -70.5998

For a larger map of West Chop Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From the Vineyard Haven ferry landing, go west on Union Street and then turn right onto Main Street. Main Street will become West Chop Road, which will lead you to the lighthouse that you will see on your right. The dwelling adjacent to the lighthouse is a Coast Guard residence, while the second dwelling is used as a vacation home for military personnel. The lighthouse can be seen from ferries bound to and from Woods Hole.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.

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