Gay Head Lighthouse

Aquinnah, Massachusetts

  • Site Established: 1799
  • Current Bldg. Erected: 1856
  • Height of Light Structure: 51 ft.
  • Focal Plane of Light: 170 ft.
  • Active: Yes
  • Lens: DCB-224
  • Information: 508-627-4441

Historic Significance Score: 3

In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold built the first colonial settlement in New England on the small island of Cuttyhunk, which is presently located on the northern edge of Massachusetts’ Vineyard Sound.

Upon the establishment of Cuttyhunk, Gosnold would frequently cross the sound to an island dense with wild grapes that he eventually named Martha’s Vineyard. Legend states it was named after his daughter.

Upon Gosnold’s visits to the island, he encountered the settlement of the Wampanoag Indian tribe.

In 1642, the first European settlement was established on the eastern shore of Martha’s Vineyard at Great Harbor, which is present-day Edgartown.

In 1798, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton secured $5,750 from Congress to establish a lighthouse on the westernmost location on the island to assist mariners to navigate through Buzzard’s Bay and the treachurous, underwater sand formation of Devil’s Bridge, which ran out to sea from this eastern tip of the island.

The lighthouse location, called Gay Head — named for the brightly colored rock formations on the 100-foot scenic cliffs — received a basic octagon lighthouse in 1799. Lighthouse keeper Ebenezer Skiff was appointed lightkeeper and lived alongside the Wampanoag Tribe, eventually becoming an educator to them.

In 1844, a brick concentrical tower replaced the original lighthouse at Gay Head, and eight years later this structure was designated the ninth most important lighthouse on the eastern seaboard of America. Soon after this designation, the lighthouse received a first-order Fresnel lens that was previously showcased as a high-tech wonder of the 19th century at the World’s Fair in Paris, France.

The coastal location of Gay Head was witness to one of the worse maritime accidents in New England history when in 1884 the passenger ferry City of Columbus ran aground on the Devil’s Bridge ledge, killing more than 100 passengers.

Today, the beautiful lighthouse at Gay Head is still an active guide to navigation but is leased by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society. In 1999 it was added to the list of the National Register of Historic Places.

Majesty Score: 5

Gay Head Lighthouse features one of the most dramatic and picturesque locations for a lighthouse on the Eastern Coast of the United States. With a tower height of only 51 feet, the lighthouse is grandious in person because it is perched on the 130-foot cliffs of the location and offers a breathtaking view of the sound and surrounding area.

Near a small section of shops and parking for the lighthouse is an overlook that presents one of the most breathtaking lighthouse views and best lighthouse photo ops in America. Waves crash 100 feet below as you look north to see the Gay Head Lighthouse on top of brown, white and red cliffs smothered in thick green vegetation.

Water View Score: 5

Gay Head Lighthouse offers one of the most picturesque locations and beautiful water views of any lighthouse in America. On a clear day you can see for miles.

We would strongly recommend visiting this lighthouse at sunset, when by chance most of the tours are offered. This will allow you to see the sunset’s direct horizontal light blaze up the colors of the cliffs. This western location on the island is also one of the best places to watch the sun set on the water each evening.

Preservation Score: 3

Three of the lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard: Gay Head, East Chop and Edgartown lighthouses are currently maintained by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society under a 30-year lease with the U.S. Coast Guard. They have done a commendable job on safeguarding these beacons.

The Gay Head Lighthouse does show signs of wear and is a little tattered, but that seems only to add to its mystique. In addition, the cliffs around the lighthouse are closed as erosion presents a danger for tourists and will eventually threaten the lighthouse.

Surrounding Area Score: 5

The real benefit of this lighthouse trip is visiting the beautiful Massachussets island of Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard receives our highest score as one of the most beautiful locations in America!

At about 25 miles long and only seven miles wide at the widest point, the Vineyard is actually a collection of small towns, each with their own allure and feel.

Vineyard Haven, the port where most ferry passengers arrive, features the small Main Street one block north of the ferry terminal with a selection of boutique and souvenier shops. The ferries coming and going to Martha’s Vineyard get sold out very quickly during the summer and advanced reservations are definitely recommended. Many times, your vacations will have to planned around ferry openings. For complete details on the ferries, please visit the the Woods Hole Ferry Web site. Passenger ferries also leave from New Bedford, Mass.

The town of Edgartown (below right) is the quinessential New England seaside town with rennovated old captain’s houses looking out to sea. The town offers great restaurants and shopping as well as a ferry to Chappaquiddick island. Our personal favorite was the town of Oak Bluffs (below left), which is know by the locals as the most liveliest town on the island. Featuring fine restaurants and nightlife, Oak Bluffs is a town where an extended stay is recommended.

The calmer tourist can experience the beautiful town center of the great lawn marked with a gazebo. Surrounding that are many huge mariners homes pointed out to sea.

In addition, Oak Bluffs features the Methodist camp site that features brightly colored, one-room Victorian gingerbread-style cottages that were used for retreats and first gave Martha’s Vineyard its resort reputation. Oak Bluffs also plays host to the oldest merry-go-round in the country, the Flying Horses.