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.

Cape Cod’s First Lighthouse, Highland Light

By Mary Moran

Highland Light (Cape Cod Light)

Originally settled as “Pamet” in 1646, the town of Truro (name change in 1709) is the second most northerly town on Cape Cod. Adding a third title into the mix, Truro earned the nickname of “Dangerfield” early on, due to the frequent and devastating ship wrecks that occurred off the town’s shore. Attempts were made to get the necessary funding to build a lighthouse on the high land adjacent to Cape Cod Harbor. These attempts were made by both the Massachusetts Humane Society and the Boston Marine Society. Unfortunately no action was taken and the wrecks continued to occur at an alarming rate. By 1796 the waters off Truro had more ship wrecks than any other area throughout Cape Cod. In February of 1796, a committee of three men tried once again to gather the attention of Congress in regard to funding and building a lighthouse in Truro. A petition was drafted, signed, and presented to Congress. By May of that year, a sum of $8,000 was appropriated to build the very first lighthouse on Cape Cod, and the 20th lighthouse in the entire country.

The first Highland Lighthouse was a 45-foot octagonal wooden tower that sat about 160 feet above the average water level. On November 15, 1797, Cape Cod’s first lighthouse went into service surrounded by a new barn, oil shed, well, and keeper’s house. Wanting to distinguish the new light from a similar one on the Boston shoreline, the first rotating “flashing” light was created. However, the new machinery proved faulty and from 1812 to 1901 the light went back to the common, fixed, white light. Aside from the shoddy light machinery, it was decided in 1828 that the whole light station was crumbling and was in need of a makeover. With another $5,000 in funding, a brand-new 35-foot lighthouse was built. The structure was built of sturdy brick and was round in shape. The keeper’s house was also replaced by a new brick dwelling, in hopes that the structures would remain intact for many years to come. However, the harsh salty winds once again won the battle, breaking down the second structure bit by bit. When the town appropriated another $15,000 in 1857, the light house was built to endure the weather and help protect sailors for hundreds of years. Constant updates were made to the Highland Light after the third structure was completed. A first order Fresnel lens was imported from Paris, making the Highland Light one of the brightest lights on the East Coast. The light station also added an extremely powerful coal-burning fog signal, for the all-too-common  blinding blanket of clouds that sweep through the area.

Now being one of the brightest lighthouses on the entire coast, Highland Light was the first part of America to be seen by the increasing numbers of European immigrants coming to the country. In 1932, an electric light was installed in the Fresnel lens, making Highland Light the brightest and most powerful lighthouse on the coast. Under normal weather conditions this 4 million candlepower light could be seen up to 45 miles away. In extremely clear weather, the light from Truro could be seen up to 75 miles away! As technology improved, so did the light and finally in 1986, Highland Light was automated. Now that the light was up to par with the times, it was time to deal with the last major problem. Over the years, erosion caused the shore to creep up on the old lighthouse and if it wasn’t moved back from the edge, it would eventually be lost to the sea. The Truro Historical Society began fundraising and accepting donations to pay for the lighthouse’s costly move up the shore. They were able to raise $150,000. In addition one million dollars came from the Federal government and a half million from the state  of Massachusetts. Thus the lighthouse, weighing in at 404 tons was moved a mere 450 feet from its original location. The move took 18 days to complete and the light was re-lit in its new home on November 3rd of the same year.

In 1998, the doors to Highland Light were opened to the public, complete with a gift shop, tours, and exhibits throughout the keeper’s house. Highland’s light was upgraded again, this time to a VRB-25 optic that gives off a flashing white light every 5 seconds. This light remains today. The Highland Light Station is now owned by the National Seashore and managed by Eastern National. The light station is open to the public daily in the summer season and is active year-round. Although it is still called Highland Light, the lighthouse’s name was officially changed to Cape Cod Light in 1976 (and remains so on road signs to this day, FYI). The light’s new name, however, didn’t quite stick with the locals and is rarely used.

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 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.