Gay Head Light is a historic lighthouse located atop the cliffs at the western end of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
The first Gay Head Lighthouse was an octagonal wooden tower constructed on a stone foundation, with a wooden keeper’s dwelling, a barn, and an oil tank building. On November 18, 1799, Ebenezer Skiff, the first European to live in Gay Head, lit the spider lamp inside the tower’s lantern room for the first time.
In the early 19th century, the tower at Gay Head Lighthouse was lowered fourteen feet to reduce the likelihood of fog distorting its illumination. A local blacksmith reconstructed the tower’s lantern and deck in 1838, and the tower was lowered three feet. The lighting apparatus at Gay Head was a revolving system of ten oil lamps, each set in a fourteen-inch reflector, to distinguish it from fixed lights in the area.
The light was improved to fourteen lamps and larger reflectors in 1854. The originally faint Gay Head Light was now luminous enough to be mistaken for the second-order Fresnel lens in the Nantucket Sankaty Light. In August 1854, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the building of a new brick tower to house a first-order Fresnel lens, as well as a new brick keeper’s residence. As a result, Caleb King of Boston built the existing 52-foot-tall conical brick tower and dwelling in 1855, and the light was lit in 1856. Gay Head was listed as one of the most important lighthouse locations in the United States and as a result, it was one of the first lighthouses in the United States to receive a first-order Fresnel lens. The Gay Head Light attracted a lot of attention after it was installed. As a result, many tourists visited the lighthouse via steamship and other modes of transportation at the time.
David Hunter Strother wrote about Gay Head Lighthouse in an 1860 Harper’s Magazine article saying “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.”
In the early 1950s, Gay Head was one of the last towns in Massachusetts to receive electricity. In 1952, a high-intensity electric beacon replaced the Fresnel lens. The Fresnel lens was donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and installed by the Coast Guard in a new tower on the museum grounds. By 1956, the Gay Head Light had been fully automated, and the keeper’s residence had been demolished.
The automated Gay Head Light was infrequently maintained by the US Coast Guard from 1956 to 1985. Various lighthouses around the United States were designated for destruction due to US Coast Guard Congressional funding shortages in the 1970s and early 1980s because the structures were costly to maintain and no longer functioned as essential navigational aids. This deprecation was brought about by improved satellite GPS and other electrical maritime navigation aids. Due to the United States Coast Guard funding shortages in the mid-1980s, the Gay Head Light, along with two other Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses, were labeled for destruction.
The three threatened lights on Martha’s Vineyard were saved thanks to Vineyard Environmental Research Institute’s (VERI) objectionable federal petition and Congressional testimony. Following congressional hearings, the United States Coast Guard granted the VERI non-profit a 35-year license for the three lights in 1985. This lighthouse license gave the owner complete authority over the management and upkeep of the Gay Head Light structure (except for the aide to navigation) and its surrounding grounds.
Control of “active” lighthouses was moved to a civilian organization for the very first time in US history. Similarly, for the first time in the island’s history, oversight of any of its five lighthouses was now in the hands of an island organization. Following the receipt of the lighthouse license, the Institute embarked on a series of fundraising activities that involved the Martha’s Vineyard community, including local supporters and celebrities. The funds were used to make major repairs and additions. Fundraising and work are still being done today. The lighthouse was recently moved back from the eroding cliffs in 2015.
Gay Head Lighthouse has become one of the primary destinations for visitors and locals of Martha’s Vineyard. The lighthouse can be viewed from the popular Aquinnah Cliffs Overlook all year long. Seasonally, the doors of the lighthouse are open to visitors looking to get to see the inside of this historic structure.
Looking for more great spots to explore in Massachusetts? Check out the GoXplr Massachusetts Map at goxplr.com/map/massachusetts
- Originally constructed: 1799
- Current tower constructed: 1856
- First lit: 1856 (current structure)
- Construction: Brick and sandstone
- Tower shape: Conical
- Height: 51 feet (15.5 m)
- Focal height: 170 feet (52 m)
- Markings: Red brick with black lantern
- Characteristic: Alternating white and red every 15 seconds (WR 15s)
- Range: White 24 nautical miles (44 km; 28 mi) & Red 20 nautical miles (37 km; 23 mi)
- Status: Active
- NRHP number: 87001464
- Address: Aquinnah Cir
- Town: Aquinnah
- State: Massachusetts
- GPS: Lat 41.34843 Lng -70.83493
- Parking notes: The Moshup Beach Parking Lot is the best lot and it costs $30 a day to park there in the summer. It holds about 40 cars. There is also a large paved parking area on Aquinnah Circle. Parking is free during the off-season.
- Parking directions: HERE
- Location directions: HERE
External Website: http://www.gayheadlight.org/