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 Gay Head, MA    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse accessible by ferry.Lighthouse open for climbing.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: Perched atop multi-colored cliffs at the western end of Martha’s Vineyard, Gay Head Lighthouse occupies a picture-perfect location. The cliffs exhibit vivid hues of green, yellow, black, brown, red, and white and attract visitors from all over the world. The first European to name this natural feature was explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who, when he sailed past in 1602, called them Dover Cliffs after the famous chalky landmark along the English Channel. This name, however, failed to stick, and by the 1660s, the area became commonly known as Gay Head, due to the headland’s gaily-colored cliffs.

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The area around Gay Head has been home to Wampanoag Indians for thousands of years, and to this day many local residents are members of the tribe. In 1998 the town nearest the lighthouse changed its name from Gay Head to Aquinnah, which is Wampanoag for “end of the island.”

The passage between Gay Head and the Elizabeth Islands is treacherous for maritime traffic due to the submerged obstruction called Devil’s Bridge, which extends seaward from Gay Head. In 1796 a Massachusetts State Senator asked for a lighthouse to protect the numerous vessels passing through Vineyard Sound, and in 1798 Congress approved $5,750 to build a lighthouse at Gay Head.

The original Gay Head Lighthouse, an octagonal wooden tower built on a stone base, was accompanied by a wooden keeper’s dwelling, a barn, and an oil storage building. Ebenezer Skiff, the first European to live in the town of Gay Head, made the inaugural lighting of the spider lamp inside the tower’s lantern room on November 18, 1799. After a few years at Gay Head, Keeper Skiff felt he merited a pay increase and penned the following letter to Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury.

Gayhead, October 25, 1805
Sir: Clay and Oker of different colours from which this place derived its name ascend in a Sheet of wind from the high Clifts and catch on the light House Glass, which often requires cleaning on the outside – tedious service in cold weather, and additional to what is necessary in any other part of the Massachusetts.
The spring of water in the edge of the Clift is not sufficient. I have carted almost the whole of the water used in my family during the last Summer and until this Month commenced, from nearly one mile distant.
These impediments were neither known nor under Consideration at the time of fixing my Salary.
I humbly pray you to think of me, and (if it shall be consistent with your wisdom) increase my Salary.
And in duty bound I am your’s to Command.
EBENEZER SKIFF
Keeper of Gayhead Light House

1856 Gay Head Lighthouse and dwelling
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
As a result of the letter, Skiff’s annual salary was increased from $200 to $250. Over the course of his twenty-nine years at the lighthouse, Skiff only received one additional $50 pay increase, but he did supplement his income through farming and teaching the native Indians. When Ellis Skiff took over the responsibilities of keeper from his father in 1828, his starting wage was $350.

Early in the 19th century the tower at Gay Head was lowered fourteen feet to reduce the probability of its light being obscured in fog. In 1838 a local blacksmith rebuilt the tower’s lantern and deck, and the tower was lowered another three feet. By this time, the lighting apparatus had been converted to a revolving system of ten oil lamps each set in a 14-inch reflector.

I.W.P. Lewis described the lighthouse in 1842 as “decayed in several places” and declared that both the tower and the keeper’s house needed to be rebuilt. In 1844 the tower was moved back from the edge of the eroding bluff about seventy-five, but a new lighthouse and dwelling for Gay Head were not provided until after the formation of the Lighthouse Board in 1852.

Just as the country started to deploy Fresnel lenses, $30,000 for a new lighthouse featuring a first-order lens was budgeted for Gay Head in 1854. Caleb King was contracted to build the new 51-foot brick tower and brick dwelling, while the lens, winner of a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1855 and containing 1,008 prisms, was purchased from the Parisian firm of Henry-Lepaute. Powered by a clockwork mechanism that had to be wound every four hours, the lens revolved to produce a flash every ten seconds. Panels of ruby-colored glass were installed in 1874 to make every fourth flash red.

The powerful lens quickly became a tourist attraction and a visit to the lantern was described by David Hunter Strother in Harper’s Magazine .

At night we mounted the tower and visited the look-out gallery that belts the lighthouse at some distance below the lantern. Here we were surprised by a unique and splendid spectacle. The whole dome of heaven, from the centre to the horizon, was flecked with bars of misty light, revolving majestically on the axis of the tower. These luminous bars, although clearly defined, were transparent ; and we could distinctly see the clouds and stars behind them. Of all the heavenly phenomena that I have had the good fortune to witness — borealis lights, mock suns, or meteoric showers — I have never seen anything that in mystic splendor equaled this trick of the magic lantern at Gay Head.

1856 Gay Head Lighthouse and 1902 dwelling
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Even with the powerful beacon in place, shipwrecks still occurred in the waters offshore. One of the worst tragedies was on January 19 of 1884, when Keeper Horace N. Pease and his assistant Frederick Poole were in charge of the light as the steamer City of Columbus, filled with winter vacationers, sailed by en route to New York and points south. When the ship struck Devil’s Bridge at 3:45a.m., its captain immediately reversed the engines, but the vessel was hard aground and taking on water.

The keepers gathered a crew of Indians to reach the steamer using a lifeboat kept at the station. While attempting to pass through the surf, the vessel overturned, but everyone scrambled back aboard, and they soon neared the wrecked City of Columbus. A strong swell kept the lifeboat from closely approaching the stranded ship, so the surviving passengers were urged to jump into the icy waters and swim to the lifeboat. Over 100 people perished in the accident, but may lives were saved thanks to the quick action taken by the keepers and local Indians.

Crosby L. Crocker served at Gay Head from 1892 to 1920 and had four of his children die in a span of just fifteen months. Ten years after their passing, a fifth child died at the age of fifteen. If this string of deaths wasn’t enough to indicate something was wrong at the station, the keeper whom Crock replaced had died at the age of forty-four after just one year at Gay Head. The cause of the deaths was finally determined to be the mold and mildew growing on the walls of the always damp dwelling. The Lighthouse Board noted in 1899 that the house was “too damp and unsanitary for safe occupation by human beings,” and recommended $6,500 for a new house. A spacious gambrel-roofed, double dwelling was built in 1902.

The first-order Fresnel lens was removed from Gay Head in 1952 and placed in a brick tower built on the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society Museum in Edgartown. Charles Vanderhoop, a Gay Head Indian who had served as keeper at Gay Head from 1920 to 1933, had the honor of lighting the lens at the dedication ceremony. The beautiful 1902 dwelling was demolished after the station was fully automated in 1956, leaving the redbrick tower alone atop the cliffs.

The Coast Guard leased the tower to the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute in 1985, and the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society took over responsibility for it in 1994. The society has stewardship of the Edgartown and East Chop Lighthouses as well and is currently raising funds for a much-needed restoration of the Gay Head Lighthouse.

In December 2012, Congressman William Keating appealed to the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard to expedite the transfer of ownership of the Gay Head Light, so that it could be relocated. “The land on which the light tower is situated is eroding at a rate of nearly two feet per year and only 50 feet now remain between the tower and the approaching cliffs,” Keating wrote. “If the Gay Head Light is not relocated, Martha’s Vineyard will undoubtedly lose a historic emblem within just a few short years.” A buffer of thirty feet is needed to move the lighthouse, so the relocation must occur before 2022.

A twelve-member committee, appointed by the town selectmen and charged with developing a plan to relocate the historic brick tower, held its first meeting on January 3, 2013. On February 5, 2013, residents of Aquinnah voted to acquire the lighthouse and appropriated $5,000 from the town's Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for a feasibility and planning study for saving the lighthouse. If you would like to help with the fundraising effort, click here.

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

References

  1. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  2. The Lighthouses of New England, Edward Rowe Snow, 2005.
  3. Annual Report of the Light House Board, various years.
  4. A guide to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Richard Pease, 1876.

Location: Located at the extreme western tip of Martha's Vineyard.
Latitude: 41.34846
Longitude: -70.83494

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


Travel Instructions: From Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, follow signs west to Chilmark. At Chilmark, continue west on South Road, which will end in a loop at the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open during the summer. Martha's Vineyard Museum maintains a list of visiting hours for the lighthouse.

A great place from which to view the lighthouse with the cliffs in the foreground is at the overlook which is just beyond the souvenir shops and restaurants at Aquinnah Circle.

The first-order Fresnel lens from the lighthouse is on display on the grounds of Martha's Vineyard Museum in Edgartown.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and managed by the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society. Grounds open, tower open during scheduled tours.

Find the closest hotels to Gay Head Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
During our first trip to Martha's Vineyard, we planned to watch the sunset at Gay Head, but when we arrived at the western end of the island, the light tower was shrouded in fog. Still, we paid our entrance fee and climbed the tower to get a good elevated view of the fog. We did gain an appreciation of how useful a fog signal might be for mariners, as the light was not visible for more than 100 feet.

You can see the lighthouse in the movie "Jaws."


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.