If you’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard, you’ve probably heard someone mention the Gay Head Light. This 170-foot tall lighthouse, located in Aquinnah, first opened in 1799. A few years before, in 1796, Senator Peleg Coffin requested the lighthouse be built to guide ships past a dangerous range of underwater rocks known as “The Devil’s Bridge.” They undertook a study to determine its necessity and found that more than 80,000 ships passed that particular area every year. In 1798, the United States Congress under President John Adams (a Massachusetts native!) approved the lighthouse’s construction.
The Gay Head Light almost met its ruin in the 1970s and 1980s. The U.S. Coast Guard, the group charged with maintaining the lighthouses, designated the Gay Head Light for destruction (along with two other Martha’s Vineyard lighthouses: East Chop and the Edgartown Harbor Light). Lighthouses, it seems, are expensive to maintain – and thanks to the increasing prevalence of satellite navigation systems, they’re also largely surplus to requirements these days. Thankfully, people took notice of its impending destruction and stood up to save this beautiful structure.
Saving the Gay Head Light
The Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (VERI) petitioned the government to obtain control of the lighthouses. In 1985, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred control of all three lighthouses (Gay Head, East Chop, and Edgartown Harbor Light) to VERI, who took control of management and maintenance. This marked the first time in American history that the government has transferred control of an active lighthouse to a private institution. In 1994, VERI transferred the light to the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society (now known as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum).
In 1985 (before it transferred to the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society), VERI and a litany of private donors set about restoring the lighthouse: replacing broken glass, removing toxic mold, fixing issues with the bricks, and so on. Since then, the lighthouse has hosted a number of famous visitors, the most notable being the Obamas, who received a guided tour in August of 2009 (making Barack Obama the second president, after Calvin Coolidge, to tour the Gay Head Light). Other famous visitors include comedian, Dennis Miller; Senator Ted Kennedy and his daughter, Caroline Kennedy; singer/songwriter, Carly Simon; and many more.
In mid-2015, the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee worked with the town of Aquinnah to relocate the lighthouse 129 feet from its original location. Its current location is a safe distance from the eroding cliffs (180 feet), and geologists estimate it won’t be threatened again until the 2160s.
Visiting the Gay Head Light
The Gay Head Light has been open to the public since it opened. Today, the lighthouse gives guided tours during the summer months (July – October 12th, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., and some Thursday evenings). Tickets are $5 for adults. Museum members and children get in free. To learn more about the Gay Head Light, visit the Martha’s Vineyard Museum website.
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