Martha’s Vineyard’s Edgartown Lighthouse

Edgartown Light at Dawn

Edgartown Lighthouse

By Mary Moran

Edgartown Light at Dawn
Edgartown Light at Dawn (photo courtesy of Rfgagel, Wikimedia Commons)

In the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s, whaling was a major industry on the east coast of America and particularly along the Massachusetts coast. In fact, during that time, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket owned approximately a quarter of America’s whaling fleet. There were one hundred local Edgartown men who were captains of these whaling ships and many others served as first-mates and crew. Maritime traffic around the island was dangerous and became more so with the addition of the increasingly larger fleet of whaling ships. When the industry was at its peak in 1828, funds in the amount of $5,500 were appropriated to build a lighthouse at the entrance to Edgartown Harbor, in order to increase visibility and safety on the open waters. The land on which the lighthouse would sit was a bit less expensive than the lighthouse project itself. The land cost was only $80.

The new light station consisted of a two-story home with a lantern on top. Its fixed white light could be seen up to 14 miles away. The location of the light station was offshore on pilings. This made it necessary for the light keeper to row to the mainland to get supplies. In 1830 a wooden causeway was built that led to the lighthouse as a result, getting basic necessities to the property was a much easier and safer task. However, a short time later, in the late 1830’s, the light house was showing signs of rot and had begun to crumble.

For the next twenty years, the Edgartown light would undergo several repairs and upgrades. A stone breakwater replaced the wooden one in 1847, and in 1856, the Edgartown light had a fourth-order Fresnel lens installed. Other additions to the light station throughout the years included a storage building, an oil house, and a fog bell. However, a fierce hurricane in the autumn of 1938 blew through the area and destroyed all of the old buildings. The only remaining structures on the property were then demolished when the Coast Guard took over at the station the following year. Replacing the old lighthouse would be a bit of a chore. The people of Edgartown rejected the idea of a “skeleton” tower, which would destroy the sentimental beauty of the picturesque light station. With the skeleton structure dismissed, it was decided that the lighthouse that was located in Ipswich, Massachusetts would be moved to  Edgartown. In order to transfer the giant, unwieldy structure, the tower had to be taken apart and sent in pieces by barge to the Vineyard.

When assembled, the new tower stood 45 feet above sea level and was made of a much more reliable material: cast iron. The light itself produced an automatic flashing red light every six seconds. All in all, the Edgartown light station had undergone a serious makeover. In 1985 the lighthouse and its property was leased to he Vineyard Environmental Research Institute. Under their command, Edgartown light was fitted with a new plastic lens run fully on solar power. In 1994, the lease was once again transferred; this time to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

In 2007, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum received funds, from the Community Preservation Act, in order to fully restore Edgartown Light including such simple but major additions like windows and a staircase (there was only a ladder leading up to the light before that time).

The grounds of the Edgartown Lighthouse are open to the public year round with a much easier commute than the one made by the original lighthouse keeper. Because sand has gradually filled the break between the light and the mainland. The lighthouse itself is open for the summer season from late May through mid October. Hours of operation are available online.

In 2001, a memorial was established at the base of Edgartown lighthouse in honor of children who have passed away. For information or to donate to the Martha’s Vineyard Children’s Lighthouse Memorial:

Children’s Lighthouse Memorial
P.O. Box
Edgartown, MA 02539


Cape Cod's Stowe Room, A
Harriet Beecher Stowe room
Cape Cod's Roosevelt Room, B
Cape Cod’s Roosevelt Room, B

While all of the bedchambers at the Palmer House have their own romantic charm suitable for relaxation after the most wonderful day of sight seeing on Cape Cod, we recommend the Harriet Beecher Stowe room, the Theodore Roosevelt room or the Emily Dickinson room. These rooms feature comfortable king beds, fireplaces, jacuzzi-style tubs for a relaxing stay before and after your day.


Mary Moran is a Falmouth native and knowledgeable about Cape Cod. In addition to writing for the Palmer House Inn, she’s also frequently at the inn and available  to answer quest’s questions. She enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time exploring Falmouth’s coastal waterways.

Gay Head Light

Martha's Vineyard cliffs and Gay Head Lighthouse

Gay Head Light (Aquinnah)

By Mary Moran

Martha's Vineyard cliffs and Gay Head Lighthouse
Martha’s Vineyard cliffs and Gay Head Lighthouse. (Photo by m01229, Flickr)

In the late 18th century, the whaling industry was beginning to flourish for both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket islands. Subsequently, traffic on the waters surrounding the islands began to rapidly increase. Also there was an increasing number of devastating shipwrecks on and around the waters of Nantucket Sound. In 1796, Congress was approached with the proposal to building a light house at Gay Head, an area of Martha’s Vineyard now named Aquinnah. The light would protect the waters between the clay cliffs of Gay Head and the Elizabeth Islands. This area has extremely dangerous underwater shoals and rock formations that are a constant threat to the safe travel of whaling vessels and their crews. The island was granted $570 for the construction of a light, and in 1799 two acres of land were given to house the first lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard – the Gay Head Light.

Interesting Fact: Although the town of Gay Head has changed its name to Aquinnah, Gay Head Light will remain officially recognized as such due to its 1987 placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gay Head Light
Gay Head Light. (Photo by Chris Costello, Wikimedia Commons)

As years passed, the clay cliffs slowly eroded and the Gay Head tower seemed to be falling apart at the same pace. In 1852 the Federal Lighthouse Board requested a brand new, better tower for the “lighthouse that is second to none on the East Coast.” The following year, $13,000 was appropriated for not only the tower itself, but for a better light apparatus as well. The sum of $30,000 was added to the total in 1854. This time for a major upgrade, a first-order Fresnel lens. Caleb King, a Boston man, would construct the new brick lighthouse as well as a brick keeper’s home.

The light tower stood 52 feet tall and was conical in shape. The bricks themselves were harvested directly from the clay of the Gay Head cliffs where the light resides. Inside the durable brick lighthouse, a twelve-foot tall, whale oil-fired, first-order Fresnel lens was installed. Weighing in at one and a half tons, the lens consisted of 1008 crystal prisms that produced a bright flash every ten seconds. Gay Head Light was one of the first lighthouses ever to receive a first-order Fresnel lens. This one in particular, won first prize in the 1855 Paris Exhibition of Industry.

Because of the light’s rarity, it caused an influx of publicity and tourism for the island. To stay distinguished and unique from any other light on the entire East Coast, the Gay Head Light changed its pattern in 1874. The light now produced three white flashes followed by one red flash.

Interesting Fact: In 1902, the brick keeper’s dwelling was demolished due to a series of unexplained illnesses and deaths that seemed to continue among the occupants of the house. It was replaced by a small wooden cottage.

The mid-1900s began a period of change for the Gay Head Light Station. In 1952, the outdated Fresnel lens was replaced by a ‘high intensity’ electric beacon. The crystal lens would stay safe, however, with all its weight and glory being donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, for the public’s viewing. Only four years later, in 1956, Gay Head Light would be completely automated which inevitably caused the removal of the keeper’s house from its property.

Thirty years later, the lighthouse was once again in peril; this time from demolition due to lack of Congressional funding for the Coast Guard. Being one of three lighthouses in danger of destruction. The Vineyard Environmental Research Institute formed a federal petition, which led to congressional testimony. The petition had the support of both Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman Gerry Studds.

In the end, all three Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses were saved and leased out by the Coast Guard to the Research Institute for 35 years. The lease gave the Institute full control over all three light stations. Over the next year, proceeds from community fundraising were given to restore the Gay Head Light and its grounds. In 1986, Gay Head Light Station was open to the public for the first time in thirty years. Once open, lighthouse tours and sunset gatherings were offered to visitors. In 1994, the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute transferred its license over to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Ownership was then turned to the town of Aquinnah. Today, Gay Head Light is a current aid to navigation for the Coast Guard and is still managed by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Recent Changes: In May of 2014, $3.5 million was raised in order to once again move the lighthouse away from the eroding cliffs. The move extended the survival of the tower for an estimated 150 years. It was re-lit on August 11, 2015. Today, picturesque Gay Head Light is open to the public for tours through the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

More Cape Cod Lighthouses

 


Cape Cod's Stowe Room, A
Harriet Beecher Stowe room
Cape Cod's Roosevelt Room, B
Cape Cod’s Roosevelt Room, B

While all of the bedchambers at the Palmer House have their own romantic charm suitable for relaxation after the most wonderful day of adventures sampling Cape Cod’s finest sights, we recommend the Harriet Beecher Stowe room, the Theodore Roosevelt room or the Emily Dickinson room. These rooms feature comfortable king beds, fireplaces, jacuzzi-style tubs for a relaxing stay before and after your day.


Mary Moran is a Falmouth native and knowledgeable about Cape Cod. In addition to writing for the Palmer House Inn, she’s also frequently at the inn and available  to answer quest’s questions. She enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time exploring Falmouth’s coastal waterways.

Cape Cod Museum Trail

Cape Cod Museum Trail: Gray Gables

The Cape Cod Museum Trail

By Mary Moran

Cape Cod Museum Trail: Aptucxet Trading Post Windmill
Aptucxet Trading Post Windmill

Talk about convenience, if you are planning a Cape Cod vacation and are interested in history, science and/or art, your new ‘one‐stop shop’ will be on the Cape Cod Museum Trail (link). This new and innovative website was formed in 2014 and gives you an easy way to plan your day trips to all corners of the Cape. The website is an interactive virtual tour of all the museums and is available on any ‘smart phone’, tablet, or computer. While you are staying at the Palmer House Inn your day trips to many other Cape Cod towns can include a visit to the local museums. In addition to finding general information without having to leave the home page, one can get a constantly updated calendar of upcoming events, classes and activities that are offered at each of the members’ locations. There is also a gallery of photos and videos, in addition, there are stories and tours of each of the thirty-two museums on the trail.

Falmouth Museums on the Green

The Cape Cod Museum Trail was created by the museum directors who wanted to share and promote their priceless resources. Their goal is to inspire and educate visitors of all ages and walks of life. The trail is sponsored by First Union Credit Union.

New members are added monthly. They continue to contribute to the amazing fun and educational resources available on the trail. One can also subscribe to the trail’s informative email newsletter. What a great way to plan your visit using the the Palmer House Inn as the hub for your travels.

Cape Cod Museum Trail member museums are:

 


Cape Cod's Stowe Room, A
Harriet Beecher Stowe room
Cape Cod's Roosevelt Room, B
Cape Cod’s Roosevelt Room, B

While all of the bedchambers at the Palmer House have their own romantic charm suitable for relaxation after the most wonderful day of museum seeing adventures on Cape Cod, we recommend the Harriet Beecher Stowe room, the Theodore Roosevelt room or the Emily Dickinson room. These rooms feature comfortable king beds, fireplaces, jacuzzi-style tubs for a relaxing stay before and after your day.


Mary Moran is a Falmouth native and knowledgeable about Cape Cod. In addition to writing for the Palmer House Inn, she’s also frequently at the inn and available  to answer quest’s questions. She enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time exploring Falmouth’s coastal waterways.