As I have already touched on in several of my blog posts, and in all of my Martha’s Vineyard Mysteries, the five lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard are a big part of the island’s mystique. They are what gives the island its colour, its romance. The lighthouses are the five fingers that reach out and grab our souls when we step onto our island home. They beckon us out of the house early on a foggy morning with their baritone moan. Each one is an individual. Each lighthouse is singular in its story, and in its beginnings, but none of them has a story quite like that of the Gay Head Lighthouse. Is that because it has been around the longest? It was the first built and therefore has had longer to achieve an illustrious past? Maybe…
Time To Call Washington
For “the convenience and interest of Nantucket”, Massachusetts senator Peleg Coffin (now, that’s a great handle) of Nantucket wrote to his congressman in Washington requesting that a lighthouse be built atop the Aquinnah Cliffs. Coffin explained that both passenger and commercial whaling traffic between Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and The Elizabeth Islands had increased considerably over the past few years . He also pointed out the the area was home to “Devil’s Bridge”, an elevated rock ridge that can make passage dangerous. The presence of a lighthouse, it was argued, would make passage considerably safer into Vineyard Sound.
On July 16th, 1798, Senator Coffin’s request was approved. Congress allocated $5,750 for the construction of the Gay Head Lighthouse and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was deeded two acres of land by the federal government. That seems to be the standard lighthouse land allocation. President John Adams approved a contract with John Lincoln of Hingham to construct the lighthouse and its station.
The Gay Head Lighthouse
Set upon a stone base, construction began of a forty-seven-foot tall octagonal, wooden lighthouse. Also constructed were a 17′ x 26′ lighthouse keeper’s house, a barn, and an oil vault. Like all standard lighthouses of the day, the Gay Head Lighthouse was lit with “spider lamps”. The first spider lamp was used in the Boston Lighthouse in 1790. These consisted of a shallow tray of whale oil burning with a wick system. Several wicks lit each tray. Spider lamps were messy, they smudged the glass and had to be constantly maintained in order for the light to be seen. Spider lamps were also dangerous, as keepers were constantly burning their eyes on them. The Gay Head Lighthouse was one of the first lighthouses to have a revolving light effect. Several spider lamps were placed on circular service tables attached to a pedestal. The pedestal was rotated by a mechanism not unlike clockworks.
Ebenezer Skiff (seriously, these names are so awesome) was appointed the first lighthouse keeper of the Gay Head Lighthouse on November 7th, 1799 and the light was lit for the first time on November 18th, of that same year. It’s also interesting to note that Mr Skiff was the first white man to live in Aquinnah as it was populated entirely by Wamapoag Indians.
The Weather Takes Its Toll
Twice during his 29 year tenure as the lighthouse keeper, Ebenezer Skiff asked for a raise—once in 1805 and once in 1815—of fifty dollars citing weather conditions both times. Both times, the raise was granted. When he retired in 1828, Skiff was making $350 annually which was considerably more than most lighthouse keepers of the time. Ebenezer also supplemented his income by teaching Wampanoag children.
In 1812, Captain Winslow Lewis, inventor, sea captain, and contractor, designed and patented a new lighting system and sold it to Congress. Lewis was then contracted to fit all 49 of the lighthouses across America with the new fixture. Gay Head was one of the first to receive the new equipment which consisted of ten lamps backed by fourteen inch reflectors, mounted to a chandelier, that revolved every four minutes for a “flashing” effect. It was around this time that the lighthouse was also lowered by fourteen feet to ensure that the new light could be seen under fog, rather than through it. When this happened it was noted just how badly the weather had taken a toll on the upper section of the tower. It was rotting. By 1837 the entire upper tower was replaced and a new lantern and platform were constructed.
In 1842, it was reported by the lighthouse keeper that the bluff to the north had eroded and that the ground to the south had shifted considerably. The shifting terrain had pulled the tower out of its perpendicular position. It was decided that, in order to save it, the Gay Head Lighthouse had to be moved for the first time, but certainly not the last. An Edgartown contractor by the name of John Mayhew was hired for $366.87 to move the tower back seventy-five feet from the eroding edge.
Brighter Light, Darker Days
In 1852, Congress established The Lighthouse Board of America made up of engineers and navy personnel, and in a 760 page report detailing the nation’s lighthouses, it was decided that the Gay Head Lighthouse was second to none and that it deserved closer attention. New equipment was to be outfitted once more. In 1855, Caleb King of Boston was awarded the contract to construct the new fifty-one-foot conical brick tower and dwelling on Martha’s Vineyard. All of the bricks were made from clay of the surrounding cliffs—I think that’s really cool.
Congress also ordered that the lighthouse be fitted with a first-order Fresnel Lens. Made from over one thousand hand-made prisms, the new light could not be more different from the ‘spider light’ of its meager beginnings. the lens was over twelve feet tall and weighed several tonnes. The lighthouse keeper had to wind the clockwork every four hours which produced a flash every ten seconds. The new light was first lit in December of 1856. This light has since been retired and can now be seen at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Regardless of the support and improvement of the light, shipwrecks were still common occurrences. On January 19th, 1884, City of Columbus veered off course and hit Devil’s Bridge. Despite the efforts of Lighthouse Keeper Heratio Pease and a volunteer crew of Wampanoags, of the crew of 126, only 24 were saved. The sea claimed 102 souls making it one of the worst New England maritime disasters.
Civil War Veteran, William Atchison succeeded Pease as keeper but only lasted a couple of months before resigning due to mysterious illness. Atchison was replaced by Edward Lowe who only lasted a year before dying at the age of 44. His replacement was Crosby Crocker. Within fifteen months of his tenure as keeper, four of Crocker’s children had passed away. It was years before it was determined that they had all fallen ill or died of mold. In the Annual Report of The Lighthouse Report, the following was written,”The house is too damp and unsanitary for safe occupation by human beings. It is estimated that it can be rebuilt, at a cost not exceeding $6,500, and the Board recommends that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.” Despite his family’s tragedy, Crocker stayed on until retiring in 1920. The lighthouse eventually switched over to electricity in 1952.
Same Light, Different Day
It wasn’t long before discussions began about moving the Gay Head Lighthouse. The cliffs continued to erode and the possibility became more and more real that a couple of good storms could be enough to push the light to the bottom of the cliff. On The Cape, the Highland and the Nauset Beach Lights had been moved in 1996 for the same reason. The Town of Aquinnah applied for and received ownership of the Gay Head Lighthouse via the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The application was approved and the transfer took place on February 20, 2015. The light was then extinguished in April, 2015 to prepare for the move. Just over a month later, the Gay Head Lighthouse was moved 130 feet further back from the slowly eroding cliffs.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the Gay Head Lighthouse’s part in the best movie ever made. The Gay Head Light can first be seen during Chief Brody’s rather odd drive to work. Now, I realize that show business is show business, and this happens all the time, but it always makes me chuckle a little when Brody leaves his house in Oak Bluffs and then drives past the Gay Head Lighthouse, to get to South Beach in Edgartown! I know it was his first summer, but still…
The next time we see the lighthouse is when Brody and Hooper are trying to convince Mayor Vaughn to close the beaches, because if they don’t, it will be like ringing the dinner bell for christ’s sake! All the Mayor cares about is catching paint-happy-bastards and hanging them up by their buster browns. Clearly, he is going to ignore that particular problem until it swims up and bites him on the…
The Icon of Martha’s Vineyard
That word gets thrown around a lot. Maybe its a bit too much of a superlative to even use here, but I think it’s warranted. I don’t think there is any other image that is used more often to sell our beautiful piece of paradise than that of the Gay Head Lighthouse perched majestically atop the Aquinnah Cliffs. It sums everything up. Martha’s Vineyard is our beacon—our safe haven. When the seas get too rough out there, Martha’s Vineyard is waiting. We know that no matter what we are going through, whatever part of the world we are in, the waves are rolling up on the Vineyard beaches, our friends are driving down Water Street, there is still a red gas pump on North Road, and the lighthouses are sending us signals…calling us home.