Gay Head Lighthouse

Aquinnah, Massachusetts
Perched atop the cliffs at the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, the Gay Head Lighthouse stands as a historic beacon.
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About This Location

Gay Head Lighthouse: Illuminating Martha’s Vineyard’s Western Coast

Perched atop the dramatic cliffs at the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, the Gay Head Lighthouse stands as a historic beacon, guiding ships and sharing its rich history with all who behold it.

Early Beginnings

The story of Gay Head Lighthouse began with the construction of its first iteration—an octagonal wooden tower perched upon a stone foundation. Alongside it stood a wooden keeper’s dwelling, a barn, and an oil tank building. It was on November 18, 1799, that Ebenezer Skiff, the first European resident of Gay Head, kindled the spider lamp inside the tower’s lantern room, igniting its light for the very first time.

As the early 19th century unfolded, the tower at Gay Head Lighthouse underwent modifications, with its height lowered by fourteen feet to reduce the chances of its light being distorted by fog. In 1838, a local blacksmith undertook the reconstruction of the tower’s lantern and deck, along with a further three-foot reduction in height. At the heart of this light’s apparatus was a revolving system featuring ten oil lamps, each ensconced in a fourteen-inch reflector to distinguish it from other fixed lights in the vicinity.

The Era of Improvement

In 1854, Gay Head Light received a significant upgrade: fourteen lamps and larger reflectors, significantly increasing its luminosity. This enhancement was so effective that Gay Head Light was sometimes mistaken for the second-order Fresnel lens in the Nantucket Sankaty Light. The spotlight was on Gay Head, and it attracted numerous tourists, who ventured to the lighthouse via steamships and other means of transport available at the time.

The lighthouse entered a new era of brilliance when Congress allocated $30,000 in August 1854 for the construction of a new brick tower to house a first-order Fresnel lens, along with a brick keeper’s residence. In 1855, Caleb King of Boston oversaw the construction of the iconic 52-foot-tall conical brick tower and dwelling, and the light was officially lit in 1856. Notably, Gay Head was among the first lighthouses in the United States to receive a first-order Fresnel lens, solidifying its place as one of the most important lighthouse locations in the nation.

A Marvel of Light

The Gay Head Light’s allure extended beyond its utilitarian function. In an 1860 Harper’s Magazine article, David Hunter Strother marveled at the lighthouse’s magic, recounting a unique and splendid spectacle from his visit. The dome of heaven, from its center to the horizon, was adorned with bars of misty light, gracefully revolving around the tower’s axis. These luminous, transparent bars allowed the clouds and stars to peek through, creating a mystic splendor that left a lasting impression.

Modernization and Preservation

In the early 1950s, Gay Head was one of the last towns in Massachusetts to receive electricity. In 1952, an electric beacon with high-intensity illumination replaced the Fresnel lens. Emitting alternating white and red flashes every 15 seconds, this modernized beacon extended its white beams for 24 nautical miles and its red ones for 20 nautical miles. By 1956, the lighthouse had been fully automated, and the keeper’s residence was demolished.

However, the following decades posed challenges to the maintenance of historic lighthouses across the United States. Gay Head Light, along with two other Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses, faced the threat of demolition due to funding shortages within the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1970s and early 1980s. Advancements in satellite GPS and other electronic maritime navigation aids rendered many lighthouses obsolete.

Preservation and Recognition

On June 15, 1987, a significant milestone was reached when Gay Head Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places, marking it as a cherished piece of American heritage. This designation affirmed the lighthouse’s historical importance and helped safeguard it from the looming threat of destruction. It’s refence number is 87001464 and it is officially listed as “Gay Head Light.”

Thanks to the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute’s (VERI) tireless efforts, including an objectionable federal petition and Congressional testimony, the three endangered lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard, including Gay Head, were saved from demolition. In 1985, the U.S. Coast Guard granted VERI a 35-year license for these three lights, signifying a historic transfer of control from the military to a civilian organization for the first time in U.S. history.

A Beacon of Community and Heritage

With newfound authority over the management and upkeep of Gay Head Light’s structure and its surroundings, the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute embarked on a journey of fundraising and restoration. This effort engaged the local community, garnering support from both residents and celebrities, resulting in major repairs and additions to the lighthouse.

Today, Gay Head Lighthouse has become a primary destination for both visitors and locals of Martha’s Vineyard. Its presence can be admired year-round from the popular Aquinnah Cliffs Overlook. During the tourist season, the lighthouse’s doors open to welcome visitors, providing a glimpse inside this historic structure, rich with stories and maritime heritage.

Location

Address: 15 Aquinnah Circle, Aquinnah, Massachusetts
Place GPS Coordinates: 41.348361, -70.834556
Parking GPS Coordinates: 41.348361, -70.834556
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.

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