Last Visited: October, 2003
The Gay Head Lighthouse has always been perilously close to the ever-eroding cliffs. The red brick light was built in 1844 to replace a wooden tower authorized by President John Quincy Adams. In 1856, the marvelous Fresnel lens with its 1,009 prisms was installed, after having been proudly exhibited at the World's Fair in Paris. It is now preserved at the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society in Edgartown, and is lighted every evening after dark throughout the year.
The Gay Head, East Chop, and Edgartown Lighthouses are maintained by the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society under a 30-year lease with the United States Coast Guard. Each light has a large, fenced-in park area that makes a perfect place to relax and enjoy the island's view.
The Gay Head Light was the first Vineyard lighthouse, authorized by Congress in 1798 and built the next year. An 1852 report on the nation's lighthouses ranked Gay Head ninth for important seacoast lights, the highest rank of any light north of New York. At this time the lighthouses, which had been lit with crude oil lamps, were being refitted with the superior Fresnel lenses.
Gay Head was recommended for a first-order French Fresnel light, the high-tech wonder of the nineteenth century which won the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of Industry. The lens was a scientific system of 1,003 prisms, put together like clapboard at the top and bottom, with huge bulls-eye magnifying lenses in the center. The prisms accumulated and reflected light towards the bulls-eye, crating a single powerful beam that could be seen from a distance of twenty miles at sea.
A year after the lens was installed, General David Hunter wrote in Harper's Magazine: "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, equalled this trick of the magic lantern of Gay Head."
Martha's Vineyard Online
Vineyard Gazette Online
The Gay Head and East Chop Lighthouses are open for sunset tours from late June through mid-September, from 1.5 hours before sunset to 0.5 hour after. The Gay Head Lighthouse is open Friday to Sunday; the East Chop Lighthouse just Sundays. Musicians and vocalists often perform impromptu. A $3 admission fee is requested for adults; children under 12 are admitted free.
Nearest Address: 33 Aquinnah Circle, Aquinnah, MA
- From the ferry terminal in Vineyard Haven, take a right onto Beach Rd.
- Beach Rd. turns into Main St., which turns into State Hwy.
- At an intersection turn right onto RR1 (essentially it's still State Hwy)
- RR1/State Hwy becomes Vineyard Haven Rd.
- Stay on Vineyard Haven Rd. for 1.4 miles then bear right onto North Rd.
- Continue on North Rd. for 4 miles. At that point North Rd. once again becomes RR1.
- Stay straight on RR1 for another 5.5 miles.
- At the 4-way intersection take a right onto South Rd. Take South Rd. 6.4 miles to the end at the lighthouse.
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