About This Location
The East Chop Lighthouse, perched gracefully on the dunes of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor and Vineyard Sound, is a beautiful and historic beacon that has illuminated the way for mariners since 1878. This lighthouse, one of five on Martha's Vineyard Island, has a rich history and has been a cherished landmark on the island for generations.
The history of East Chop Lighthouse is a testament to the island's maritime significance and the determination of its keepers and the community to preserve this iconic structure. In the early 1800s, the location was home to a semaphore station, hence the name "Telegraph Hill." Captain Silas Daggett, a marine merchant, took it upon himself to construct a privately owned lighthouse on the property around 1869. Daggett funded the construction and maintenance of the lighthouse by collecting fees from local merchants, maritime insurance agencies, and ship owners who relied on the light for navigation.
Daggett's 1869 lighthouse was the last of the five lighthouses to be built on Martha's Vineyard. Unfortunately, the oil-fired East Chop Light burned down in 1871. Undeterred, Daggett rebuilt the lighthouse in 1872, creating a house with a protruding lantern room, similar in concept to the first Edgartown Harbor Light. The reconstructed East Chop Light featured a red signal and three 21-inch reflectors powered by kerosene lamps. However, in 1875, the United States Congress purchased the property for $6,000 and removed Daggett's lighthouse and other structures.
In 1878, the present-day cast-iron conical tower with a fourth-order Fresnel lens was erected, accompanied by a two-story gabled roof keeper's house. Originally painted white, the lighthouse was later repainted in a brown-red color in the 1880s, earning it the nickname "Chocolate Lighthouse." This distinctive hue became a fond memory for many in the East Chop community and beyond. However, in 1988, the light was repainted white, as an engineering evaluation revealed that the dark color was causing the tower to overheat, leading to interior corrosion and rot.
In 1933, the East Chop Light was automated, and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) offered to rent the Keeper's dwelling to the longtime keeper, George Walter Purdy. Remarkably, Purdy, despite having only one arm, had served as the East Chop Light's principal keeper for thirty-two years. Purdy refused the offer, and shortly thereafter, the keeper's dwelling, fuel oil shed, and other outbuildings were demolished. The USCG closed public access to the East Chop Light due to the absence of a keeper on the grounds.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, U.S. Coast Guard funding shortages put many lighthouses across the country at risk of destruction, including East Chop Light. The cost of maintaining these structures, coupled with advances in satellite GPS and electronic navigation aids, rendered many lighthouses obsolete. In the early 1980s, East Chop Light, along with two other Martha's Vineyard lighthouses (Gay Head Light and Edgartown Harbor Light), faced the prospect of destruction. Fortunately, they were saved through federal petition and Congressional testimony by Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (VERI) Founder/President William Waterway Marks and Chair John F. Bitzer, Jr.
This effort garnered support from Congressman Gerry Studds and Senator Ted Kennedy, leading to a 35-year license being granted to VERI in 1985. This marked the first time in U.S. history that control of active lighthouses was transferred to a civilian organization. In 1994, VERI transferred their three lighthouse licenses to the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society (now known as the Martha's Vineyard Museum), which has been responsible for their care since then.
Over the years, the Martha's Vineyard Museum undertook extensive restoration and safety improvements for East Chop Light. Public access to the lighthouse, which had been closed since automation in 1933, was reopened in 1988 after significant restoration work. The community rallied to support fundraising efforts, including events featuring renowned figures such as historian David McCullough, Senator Ted Kennedy, and singer-songwriter Carly Simon.
The East Chop Lighthouse, with its distinctive green light every six seconds, continues to stand as a symbol of the island's maritime heritage. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Today, the Martha's Vineyard Museum manages the lighthouse, ensuring its preservation and sharing its rich history with visitors and residents alike. East Chop Light remains a beloved landmark and a testament to the enduring legacy of maritime navigation on Martha's Vineyard Island.
- Originally Constructed: 1869
- Current Tower Constructed: 1878
- First Lit: 1878 (current tower)
- Construction: Cast Iron
- Tower Shape: Conical
- Height: 40 feet
- Focal Height: 80 feet
- Markings: White with black lantern
- Characteristic: Isophase green light every 6 seconds
- Range: 9 nautical miles
- Status: Active
- NRHP Number: 87001480