The harbor at Vineyard Haven was
Martha's Vineyard's busiest in the nineteenth century, and it's still
busy with ferry traffic today. The harbor is protected by two areas of
land known as East Chop and West Chop. For many years, West Chop was
mainly a sheep pasture until it grew into an exclusive summer resort in
the late 1800s.
From A Trip to Cape Cod, 1898
|The harbor and the village around
it were long called Holmes Hole -- named for a settler from Plymouth,
according to some sources, or stemming from an Indian word meaning old
house or dwelling, according to others. The people of Holmes Hole were
disappointed that the harbor at Edgartown got a lighthouse (at Cape
Poge) in 1801, even though Holmes Hole's harbor was busier.
When another lighthouse was commissioned in 1817 at Tarpaulin Cove on
Naushon Island, about a dozen miles to the west, the Holmes Holers were
incredulous. The residents petitioned their congressman, John Reed,
To aid vessels heading in and out of the harbor as well as
coastal traffic passing through Vineyard Sound, Congress appropriated
$5,000 on March 3, 1817. The first lighthouse at West Chop, a 25-foot
rubblestone tower, was erected along with a stone dwelling, 20 by 34
feet. A fixed white light was exhibited from about 60 feet above the
water. The light went into service on October 5, 1817. James Shaw West,
a Tisbury native, became the first keeper at $350 per year.
In 1838, Lt. Edward D. Carpender found the station in
excellent order, "justifying the high reputation it enjoys along the
coast." He also noted that erosion threatened the tower.
Engineer I.W.P. Lewis recognized the importance of West Chop
Light in 1843:
This light being placed at the Chops of the Vineyard
sound, is exceedingly useful for all coasters bound east or west. It
also affords an excellent mark for clearing various shoals, and
indicates the position of Holmes's Hole anchorage. The present keeper
deserves praise for the great neatness of the establishment.
James West , still keeper in 1843, reported that the tower and
dwelling were both leaky. The inside of the tower was coated with ice
in winter. West also complained that he was not allowed a boat, which
prevented him "from rendering assistance to the many vessels that get
ashore in this neighborhood." The keeper pointed out that the bluff on
which the lighthouse stood had eroded to within 37 feet of the tower's
The station was rebuilt in 1846. A round stone tower and a
stone Cape-style keeper's house were constructed about 1,000 feet
southeast of the old location. The 1846 tower was later enclosed in
shingled wooden sheathing, creating in an octagonal form. This was
apparently done to cut down on leaks -- an 1850 inspection referred to
the tower as "somewhat leaky."
Circa 1890 illustration
West Chop Light c. 1870s
James West was still keeper when the new tower was
completed. He resigned in 1847 and was succeeded by Charles West (not
one of his sons). Charles West remained keeper until 1868, when his son
-- also named Charles -- succeeded him.
The younger West remained at the station until 1909,
ending a remarkable 62-year father-son dynasty.
For a time, beginning in 1857, there was an additional
light shown from a lantern on the roof of the keeper's house; the
Lighthouse Board explained that this light replaced a system of three
range lights that served as a guide into the harbor.
According to historian Edward Rowe Snow, a schooner
laden with bricks ran aground near the lighthouse in 1877. Tons of
bricks were thrown overboard so the vessel could float, and the bricks
could be seen for many decades at low tide.
A steam-driven fog signal housed in a new building was
added in 1882, and the same year a one-and-a-half-story, wood-frame
assistant keeper's house was built. The first assistant keeper was
George Dolby, who later became the principal keeper (1909-19). In 1888,
the stone dwelling built in 1846 was removed and a second wood-frame
house was erected.
Circa 1890s. From the
collection of Edward Rowe Snow
West Chop Light circa 1910
From the collection of Edward
By the early 1890s, West Chop had become a summer resort
and the proliferation of large houses in the area began to obscure the
light. A 17-foot mast with the light on top was added to the tower,
then the 1846 tower was replaced by a new 45-foot brick tower in 1891.
The tower, originally red, was painted white in 1896.
Octave Ponsart, formerly at Dumpling Rock and Cuttyhunk
lights, became keeper in 1946. As part of his duties, Ponsart also had
to check periodically check on the automated lights at Edgartown, East
Chop, and Cape Poge.
Ponsart's wife, Emma, was a regular contributor to a
newspaper called the Maine Coast Fisherman, which ran a column
of reports from light stations. Here are excerpts from a letter from
Inside the tower
Hurricane Carol took all the docks down at West
Chop. . . . I was out to look at the surf during it and it came way up
over our bank. We had no electricity for three days. Many yachts were
driven on the land. Then, Hurricane Edna came along. What a mess I had
to clean up around the place! It took our skiff into two yards down
from us. Up to Menemsha Creek, it was a sight to see the fishing boats,
yachts and fish buildings all wrecked. . .
My garden was ripped to pieces in the storm. It
broke our birdhouses too. I have been raking leaves and tree limbs ever
since the two storms. I don't feel so good. I got a cold since there
was no heat in the place during the storms. Our government house is a
good one though to have stood all it took.
In 1976, West Chop Light became the last Martha's
Vineyard lighthouse to be automated. The original fourth order Fresnel
lens remains in place. For some years, the Vineyard Environmental
Research Institute used the houses at the station for its offices.
The house closest to the lighthouse now serves as
living quarters for the officer in charge of Coast Guard Station
Menemsha. The other house is now a vacation home for people in all
branches of the military.
West Chop Light continues to exhibit its white
flash, visible for 15 miles, as an active aid to navigation. It has a
red sector to warn mariners away from two dangerous shoals. The grounds
are closed to the public, but the lighthouse can be seen from West Chop
Road and is also easily viewed from the ferries to and from Vineyard
The spiral stairs in the
view from the top
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.)
West (1818-1847); Charles West (1847-1869); Charles P. West
(1869-1909); George F. Dolby (1909-1919); James Yates (1919-?); Octave
Ponsart (1946-1956); Fred Gallop (Coast Guard, 1966-1968), Edward Trenn
(Coast Guard, 1969-1970)
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the
book The Lighthouses of Massachusetts by Jeremy