New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
East Chop Light
Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
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History
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

The name "East Chop" was first used in 1646 by Martha's Vineyard's governor Thomas Mayhew, who referred to the area as the "Eastermost Chop of Homses [Holmes] Hole." The word "chop" had been used in England to signify the entrance to a channel, such as the "chops" of the English Channel.

Before the lighthouse was built, a semaphore station once operated at East Chop. A tower displaying a series of raised and lowered arms and flags linked the site with stations in Nantucket, Woods Hole, Plymouth, Duxbury, and Boston, among others. Between 1828 and 1834 this system was used to announce ships arriving at Nantucket.

Because of the signaling station, the location was long known as Telegraph Hill.

Telegraph Hill sign

There had been a lighthouse at West Chop, across the entrance to the harbor at Holmes Hole (the name was officially changed to Vineyard Haven in 1871) since 1817. A local mariner, Silas Daggett, lobbied for a lighthouse at East Chop, but the authorities apparently believed a single light was adequate for the harbor. In 1869, Daggett took it upon himself to erect a lighthouse at East Chop. He operated it privately for seven years, receiving donations from local merchants for the upkeep of the light.

Daggett's lighthouse burned down in 1871 and was rebuilt as a light on top of a house. The Lighthouse Board's 1873 annual report revealed plans for a proper lighthouse:

A light has been maintained for several years at this point by the subscription of the owners of steamships and by other private individuals. As there is no doubt of the utility of the light, it is recommended that an appropriation for erecting a fourth order light be made.

On March 3, 1875, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the lighthouse. The old structure was removed, and Daggett returned to his life at sea.

old photo of lighthouse and surrounding houses

From A Trip to Cape Cod, 1898

A conical cast-iron lighthouse tower, 40 feet tall, was erected in 1878, along with a one-and-a-half-story keeper's house. A fourth-order Fresnel lens, with its focal plane 79 feet above mean high water, originally showed a fixed light; it was changed to flashing red in 1898, and to flashing green in 1934. An oil house was added to the station in 1897.

The lighthouse was painted white at first, but in the 1880s it was changed to a reddish-brown color that earned it the nickname "the Chocolate Lighthouse."

old photo of lighthouse and keeper's house

George Walter Purdy was keeper from 1902 to 1934, after stints at Sankaty Head and Gay Head lights. Purdy was a former lobsterman who had lost an arm in an accident in the engine room of the lighthouse tender Azalea. The Vineyard Gazette reported in May 1928:

Supplies for the light are landed on the beach at the foot of the high bluff on which the lighthouse is situated. All along the shore of the government reservation is a heavy wall of loose boulders, weighing from one to several hundred pounds each. Placed in an unbroken line to prevent the sea from wearing away the bank, they lie at the water's edge and prevent boats from landing. Because of this, it has been necessary for the lighthouse tender's boat to land on a privately-owned beach, from which the supplies had to be carried over to the government beach and thence up the bank by a flight of stairs. As this made much extra work for Mr. Purdy, he has been engaged in building a boat landing during the past winter, and the completed job is a thing to marvel at. Several boulders, weighing hundreds of pounds, were moved by Mr. Purdy, who worked with his spade and a huge wooden pry to accomplish it. Nearly anyone who considers the prodigious amount of labor necessary in such construction will agree that Mr. Purdy's one arm is worth more than two as used by the average man.

U.S. Coast Guard photo

Purdy's daughter, Alice Purdy Ray, later was interviewed by Linsey Lee of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society. "That was heaven up there in East Chop then," she said. She remembered that the house was built so solidly that you were always comfortable regardless of the weather outside. The family had a cow and a vegetable garden.

Years later Alice Purdy was watching a Coast Guardsman scraping paint from the tower. She told the man, "I know a one-armed man used to scrape that all by himself." The man asked, "How long did it take him?" Alice answered, "Two days," to the man's amazement.

In 1934, when the light was being automated, the Purdy family was offered the chance to stay in the house for $100 a month rent. They refused the offer, so the keeper's house and oil house were removed. Alice Purdy Ray said, "I could never understand why the government pulled it down. Why didn't they sell it to somebody? It was pretty nice up there."

In 1957, the Coast Guard sold the land surrounding the lighthouse to the town of Oak Bluffs for use as a park. The original Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern optic in 1984. In the following year, the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (VERI) became responsible for the maintenance of the lighthouse under a license agreement with the Coast Guard. In 1994 the license was transferred to the Martha's Vineyard Museum, along with the licenses for the Gay Head and Edgartown Lights.

The grounds around the lighthouse are beautifully maintained. East Chop Light is open to the public on summer Sundays around sunset. For information on the open houses, contact the Martha's Vineyard Museum.

You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Massachusetts by Jeremy D'Entremont.


The stairs inside the tower
 

A view from the top

Keepers: (This list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at nelights@gmail.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)

Silas Daggett (privately owned light 1869-1878), George Walter Purdy (1902-1934)

Last updated 7/5/11
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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