Aquinnah (Gay Head), Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts Gay Head Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards History
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.
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.
Gen. David Hunter wrote in Harper's:
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.
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.
Bill Grieder's father Frank was keeper from 1937 to 1948. In an interview in 2000, Grieder remembered keeping busy at the light station:
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
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.
The stairs in the tower
Richard Skidmore, the modern day "keeper" of Gay Head Lighthouse for the Martha's Vineyard Museum
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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)
© Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.
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