By Mary Moran
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
Edgartown, MA 02539
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, jetted 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.