Gay Head is an enormous cliff which extends out over the southwest point of
Martha's Vineyard. The area has been home to native Wampanoag for 10,000 years.
A lighthouse was requested in 1796 due to heavy maritime traffic through
Vineyard Sound, as well as to mark the Devil's Bridge - an underwater
navigational hazard off Gay Head.
Congress appropriated $5750 for the new lighthouse.
A 47-foot octagonal tower was built, as well as a
17 by 26-foot keeper's residence. The light went into
service in 1799, with Ebenezer Skiff as its keeper.
Skiff served the lighthouse from 1799 to 1828. His
original salary was $200 per year. During this
time he twice petitioned for a raise due to the difficult
conditions of the isolated station, and twice received
pay increases of $50.
In 1812, 10 parabolic lenses installed. In 1838, the tower was lowered
by three feet, as the light was sometimes obscured by fog.
In 1842, I.W.P. Lewis reported that the station was in poor condition
and the light signal was too weak. He recommended a new first-order
Fresnel lens. Instead, new reflectors were installed in 1854. However,
a first-order lens was approved for the site two weeks later.
In 1856, a new brick tower was constructed to house the
new first-order lens.
The lens was composed of 1008 prisms. A new keeper's house,
oil house, and barn were also built.
One of the worst shipwrecks in Massachusetts took place off Gay Head
the night of January 19, 1884. The "City of Columbus" struck the
Devil's Bridge. The ship sank in minutes - most of the passengers were asleep.
103 passengers were lost. Keeper Horatio Pease and a group of local
Wampanoag took a boat out to the wreck and rescued the survivors.
The keeper and his crew were recognized for their heroic efforts
after the disaster.
From 1891 to 1902, the keepers and families at Gay Head suffered through
a series of illnesses. Keeper William Acheson served from 1890-1891
before resigning due to illness. The next keeper, Edward Lowe,
died within a year. Keeper Crosby Crocker lost four children in 15 months.
It was finally determined in 1899 that mold and mildew in the house was
the cause of the diseases. In 1902 the old residence was razed
and a new wooden residence built with a higher foundation.
In 1920, Charles Vanderhoop became head keeper. He was the first Wampanoag keeper.
He joined the US Lighthouse Service and served at
He served as Crocker's assistant until Crocker retired.
Vanderhoop served until 1933.
In 1952, the Fresnel lens was replaced by two aerobeacons.
The Fresnel lens was moved to a new home on the grounds of
what is now the Vineyard Historical Society Museum.
The light was automated in 1856, and the residences torn down.
Only the tower remains.
In 1985 maintenance of the light was licensed to the
Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (VERI),
and a new DCB 224 aerobeacon - flashing red and white -
was installed. In 1994 the maintenance license
was transferred to the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society.
In 1998, to better represent the history of the area,
the town of Gay Head was renamed Aquinnah, a Wampanoag term -
the light is now sometimes referred to as the Aquinnah lighthouse.
Today, the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society
offers seasonal tours of the tower.
Lighthouses of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket - Their History and Lore, Clark pp. 163-169
The Lighthouses of New England, Snow pp. 288-293
The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, D'Entremont pp. 71-77
Massachusetts Lighthouses - A Pictorial Guide, Thompson pp. 94-95
Lighthouses and Life Saving Stations Along the Massachusetts Coast, Claflin pp. 114-115
New England Lighthouses, Roberts and Jones pp. 76-77
Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Roberts and Jones p. 74
The Lighthouse Companion - Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, Rezendes pp. 52-53