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Gay Head Light

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on July 5, 2013

One of the most severely endangered historic structures in America

The Gay Head Light is located on Gay Head (or the Gay headland) in Aquinnah on the western end of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.  On July 16, 1798, Congress directed the establishment of a lighthouse at “Gay-head” on Martha’s Vineyard and the appointment of a person to superintend same.  The wooden octagonal lighthouse was erected the next year and the light was officially illuminated on 18 November 1799.  The original lamp was fueled by sperm whale oil, which produced strong fumes and large amounts of soot.  The lightkeepers expended significant effort keeping the lens clean.  The light, though, facilitated passage through the hazardous Vineyard Sound between Gay Head and the Elizabeth Islands and assisted vessels in avoiding the treacherous Devil’s Bridge, a shoal and rock formation just offshore.  In 1838, the lantern was lowered by 14 feet to avoid prevailing fog and a parabolic lens was installed to improve the visibility of the light.  In 1856, the wooden structure was replaced by the current brick and sandstone lighthouse.  The new structure was also equipped with a first-order Fresnel lens imported from France.  The lens had been exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris, where it won a Gold Medal.  The lens included 60 frames of glass prisms, an iron framework, and a mechanism to control rotation of the heavy lens.  In 1885, the illuminant was changed from whale oil to kerosene.  Electric lamps were not installed until 1952.  That same year, the Fresnel lens was replaced with an aero beacon and transferred to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.  In 1985, management of Gay Head Light (and two other lights on Martha’s Vineyard) was transferred from the US Coast Guard to the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (VERI) and then, in 1994, to the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, also known as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.  Gay Head Light was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.  Now, due to continuing erosion of the clay cliff on which the light sits, Gay Head Light is in serious danger of collapse.  Efforts are underway to raise funds to pay for moving the light away from the cliff face.   

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