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New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Gay Head Light
(Aquinnah Light)
Aquinnah (Gay Head), Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Gay Head Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards

History

The handsome Gay Head Lighthouse stands in one of the most picturesque locations in New England, atop the 130-foot multicolored clay cliffs at the western shore of Martha's Vineyard.

The Englishman Bartholomew Gosnold, the first European to explore the area, called the headland "Dover Cliff" in 1602, after the famous formation on the English Channel. The Gay Head name was in common usage by the 1660s.

clay

The clay in the cliffs below the lighthouse is known for its varied colors

Massachusetts State Senator Peleg Coffin of Nantucket requested a lighthouse at Gay Head in 1796 because of the heavy maritime traffic passing through Vineyard Sound. The passage between the Gay Head cliffs and the Elizabeth Islands was treacherous because of the long underwater obstruction called Devil's Bridge that extends out from Gay Head.

Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton asked for, and received, $5,750 from Congress for the lighthouse. A 47-foot (57 feet to the top of the lantern), octagonal wooden lighthouse was erected on a stone base, along with a wood-frame keeper's house, barn, and oil vault. The light went into service on November 18, 1799. The initial keeper, Ebenezer Skiff, was the first white man to live in the town of Gay Head, which was populated by Wampanoag Indians.

old engraving

Early engraving of the first Gay Head Lighthouse
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

There was a fresh water spring near the lighthouse, but since it didn't provide enough water, Skiff had to make a mile's journey with a horse and wagon to retrieve water for his family.

Skiff complained that the cellar of the keeper's house was flooded much of the time, and that clay collecting on the glass made it difficult to keep the lighthouse's lantern clear. Also, to help tend the light while he was on various errands, the keeper sometimes had to hire local Indians for a dollar a day. For his troubles, President Thomas Jefferson awarded Skiff a raise in 1802, from $200 to $250 per year.

Skiff remained at Gay Head for 29 years. He served for a while as a teacher for local children, mostly Gay Head Indians. In 1829, his son, Ellis Skiff, became keeper at $350 per year, a higher salary than most keepers received at the time.

In 1838, a New Bedford blacksmith rebuilt the lantern and deck, and the tower was lowered by three feet. Earlier, the tower had been cut down by 14 feet to lessen the problem of the light's being obscured by fog. Also during 1838, Lt. Edward W. Carpender examined the station. He reported that the revolving light, which took four minutes to complete an entire revolution, could be seen for more than 20 miles, and that the premises were in good order.

The engineer I. W. P. Lewis visited the station during his landmark survey in the fall of 1842. He described the tower as "decayed in several places," and said the keeper's house was "shaken like a reed" in by storms. Both the tower and house required rebuilding, said Lewis.

Included in Lewis's report was a statement ascribed to Ellis Skiff: "The old clock stopped frequently, and in cold weather would not go, so that I was obliged to let the light stand still, and appear as a fixed light. The reflectors are all worn out. The chambers of my house are not lathed, plastered, or ceiled; and the house is not only cold and uncomfortable, but, from its elevated situation, likely to be blown down, as it shakes fearfully with every gale of wind."

The tower had to be moved back about 75 feet from the edge of the eroding bluff in 1844. Contractor John Mayhew, a contractor from of Edgartown, completed this task. Ellis Skiff remained keeper until he was removed for political reasons in 1845, ending close to a half century of the Skiffs at Gay Head.

An 1852 report on lighthouses in the United States ranked Gay Head Light as the ninth most important seacoast light, the highest rank of any light north of New York. In October of the following year, Joseph T. Pease, the customs collector at Edgartown, wrote to the newly formed Lighthouse Board: "In my opinion, a first class lens light should be erected there as soon as is practicable."

Congress appropriated $30,000 on August 3, 1854, and by the following summer Caleb King was contracted to build the new tower and dwelling.

A first-order Fresnel lens was obtained from the Henry-Lepaute company of Paris. A new 51-foot, conical brick lighthouse was built to hold the enormous lens, which contained 1,008 prisms.

old engraving

Engraving of the second Gay Head Lighthouse
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

Gen. David Hunter wrote in Harper's:

Of all the heavenly phenomena that I have had the good fortune to witness-borealis lights, mock suns or meteoric showers-I have never seen anything that, in mystic splendor, equaled the trick of the magic lantern of Gay Head.

shipwreck drawing

An artist's rendering of the wreck of the City of Columbus.

In spite of the powerful light, shipwrecks happened with regularity in the vicinity.The worst of them happened in the early morning of January 19, 1884, when the passenger steamer City of Columbus ran aground on Devil's Bridge, a treacherous ledge reaching out from the Gay Head Cliffs.

Twenty minutes later, 100 persons on board had drowned. Some managed to hold onto the rigging long enough for lighthouse keeper Horatio N. Pease to arrive with a crew of Gay Head Indians in a lifeboat.

old photo of lighthouse and horse and carriage

Gay Head Lighthouse c. 1890s
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

A number of people were saved by this crew and by the crew of the Revenue Cutter Dexter, which soon arrived on the scene. The wreck of the City of Columbus remains one of New England's worst marine disasters.


From A Trip to Cape Cod, 1898

William Atchison became keeper in 1890, but had to resign due to a mysterious illness a year later. His replacement, Edward Lowe, died at 44 only a year after becoming keeper. A few years later, four children of Keeper Crocker Crosby died within 15 months.

Belatedly, it was decided that the cause of all these illnesses was the extreme dampness of the keeper's house. The 1856 brick keeper's house was torn down and replaced by a wooden house in 1902. The new house was built on a much higher foundation so it would remain dry.

Charles Vanderhoop (at right, U.S. Coast Guard photo), an Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian, became one of the light's most popular keepers.

According to historian Edward Rowe Snow, Vanderhoop and his assistant, Max Attaquin, probably took one-third of a million visitors to the top of Gay Head Light between 1910 and 1933.

The wives of Vanderhoop and Attaquin each had two children during their years at the lighthouse.

Keeper Vanderhoop
aerial photo

U.S. Coast Guard photo

Bill Grieder's father Frank was keeper from 1937 to 1948. In an interview in 2000, Grieder remembered keeping busy at the light station:

There was always some work for me. I used to polish brass. I learned to light the lighthouse, and I taught my mother to do it. There were times when my Dad was sick -- my Mum would go up to light the light or I would go up. Of course we had an assistant keeper, but if you couldn't call on him you did it yourself.

I went up to help whitewash or paint the tower, and mow the lawn of course. Lug the kerosene up in the tower. Polish the lens. It had to be cleaned and dusted all the time. We had a dust cover over that. In the wintertime we used to put glycerin on the outside of the [lantern] glass, so if you got rain it wouldn't ice up.

Another job I used to do was to take people up in the tower. My Mum used to do it too. We didn't have to do it but it was kind of a courtesy. Mostly anybody who stopped in we'd take up.

The light had been converted to kerosene operation in 1885. The year 1952 saw the end of the kerosene era, as a high-intensity electric beacon replaced the Fresnel lens. The lens can be seen today in a structure resembling a short tower and lantern on the grounds of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society Museum in Edgartown. When the display was dedicated in 1952, former keeper Charles Vanderhoop lighted the lens for the assembled crowd

lens at museum

The lens from Gay Head Light is on display at the Martha's Vineyard Museum

Joseph Hindley succeeded Arthur Bettencourt and would be the last keeper at Gay Head, leaving when the light was fully automated in 1956. The dwelling was razed after automation.

The Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (V.E.R.I.) leased the lighthouse from the Coast Guard in 1985. The license was transferred to the Martha's Vineyard Museum in 1994. Much work has been done on the tower and grounds in recent years after a period of frequent vandalism.

stairs in lighthouse

The stairs in the tower

 Richard Skidmore by door of lighthouse

Richard Skidmore, the modern day "keeper" of Gay Head Lighthouse for the Martha's Vineyard Museum

Craig Dripps, chair of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society's Lighthouse Committee, said in 2007 that rust has caused the gallery surrounding the lantern to lift, allowing rainwater to get inside. "This moisture not only leaves dampness on the inner walls," according to Dripps, "but also, more seriously, freezes and expands during colder months adversely affecting the integrity of the structure." The society is raising funds for a full restoration.

The best views of the lighthouse and cliffs are from a scenic lookout near the small strip of shops and restaurants at Gay Head.

The cliffs are closed to the public because of erosion concerns, but the lighthouse is opened by the Martha's Vineyard Museum on a seasonal basis; click here for the schedule.

In 1998, the name of the town of Gay Head was changed to Aquinnah, which roughly means "end of the island," to better reflect the heritage of its residents.

For information on open houses at Gay Head Light, 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.


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.)

Ebenezer Skiff (1799-1828); Ellis Skiff (1828-1845); Samuel Flanders (1845-1849 and 1853-1861); Henry Robinson (1849-1853); Ichabod Norton Luce (1861-1864); Calvin C. Adams (1864-1869); Horatio N. T. Pease (assistant 1863-1869, principal keeper 1869-1890); Frederick Poole (assistant, c. 1884); Calvin M. Adams (assistant c. 1872-?); Frederick H. Lambert (assistant, c. 1870s); Edward P. Lowe (1891-1892); Crosby L. Crocker (1892-1920); Charles W. Vanderhoop (1920-1933); James E. Dolby (1933-1937); Frank A. Grieder (1937-1948); Sam Fuller (assistant, c. 1940s); Arthur Bettencourt (1948-?); Joseph Hindley (?-1956)

Last updated 12/24/11
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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