Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gay Head Light (Aquinnah Light)

This is another installment of the Romancing of Lighthouses.   This lighthouse is very close to my heart because I've been visiting it every year since I was a child.  Martha's Vineyard is one of my favorite places.  These photographs of the lighthouse and the cliff were all taken by me.

The handsome Gay Head Lighthouse stands in one of the most picturesque locations in New England, atop the 130-foot multicolored clay cliffs at the western shore of Martha's Vineyard.

Cliffs blog


Massachusetts State Senator Peleg Coffin of Nantucket requested a lighthouse at Gay Head in 1796 because of the heavy maritime traffic passing through Vineyard Sound. The passage between the Gay Head cliffs and the Elizabeth Islands was treacherous because of the long underwater obstruction called Devil's Bridge that extends out from Gay Head.

Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton asked for, and received, $5,750 from Congress for the lighthouse. A 47-foot (57 feet to the top of the lantern), octagonal wooden lighthouse was erected on a stone base, along with a wood-frame keeper's house, barn, and oil vault. The light went into service on November 18, 1799. The initial keeper, Ebenezer Skiff, was the first white man to live in the town of Gay Head, which was populated by Wampanoag Indians.

Skiff complained that the cellar of the keeper's house was flooded much of the time, and that clay collecting on the glass made it difficult to keep the lighthouse's lantern clear. Also, to help tend the light while he was on various errands, the keeper sometimes had to hire local Indians for a dollar a day. For his troubles, President Thomas Jefferson awarded Skiff a raise in 1802, from $200 to $250 per year.

Skiff remained at Gay Head for 29 years. He served for a while as a teacher for local children, mostly Gay Head Indians. In 1829, his son, Ellis Skiff, became keeper at $350 per year, a higher salary than most keepers received at the time.

In spite of the powerful light, shipwrecks happened with regularity in the vicinity.The worst of them happened in the early morning of January 19, 1884, when the passenger steamer City of Columbus ran aground on Devil's Bridge, a treacherous ledge reaching out from the Gay Head Cliffs.

Twenty minutes later, 100 persons on board had drowned. Some managed to hold onto the rigging long enough for lighthouse keeper Horatio N. Pease to arrive with a crew of Gay Head Indians in a lifeboat.

A number of people were saved by this crew and by the crew of the Revenue Cutter Dexter, which soon arrived on the scene. The wreck of the City of Columbus remains one of New England's worst marine disasters.

William Atchison became keeper in 1890, but had to resign due to a mysterious illness a year later. His replacement, Edward Lowe, died at 44 only a year after becoming keeper. A few years later, four children of Keeper Crocker Crosby died within 15 months.

Belatedly, it was decided that the cause of all these illnesses was the extreme dampness of the keeper's house. The 1856 brick keeper's house was torn down and replaced by a wooden house in 1902. The new house was built on a much higher foundation so it would remain dry.

Charles Vanderhoop (at right, U.S. Coast Guard photo), an Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian, became one of the light's most popular keepers.

According to historian Edward Rowe Snow, Vanderhoop and his assistant, Max Attaquin, probably took one-third of a million visitors to the top of Gay Head Light between 1910 and 1933.

The wives of Vanderhoop and Attaquin each had two children during their years at the lighthouse.

Bill Grieder's father Frank was keeper from 1937 to 1948. In an interview in 2000, Grieder remembered keeping busy at the light station:

There was always some work for me. I used to polish brass. I learned to light the lighthouse, and I taught my mother to do it. There were times when my Dad was sick -- my Mum would go up to light the light or I would go up. Of course we had an assistant keeper, but if you couldn't call on him you did it yourself.

I went up to help whitewash or paint the tower, and mow the lawn of course. Lug the kerosene up in the tower. Polish the lens. It had to be cleaned and dusted all the time. We had a dust cover over that. In the wintertime we used to put glycerin on the outside of the [lantern] glass, so if you got rain it wouldn't ice up.

Another job I used to do was to take people up in the tower. My Mum used to do it too. We didn't have to do it but it was kind of a courtesy. Mostly anybody who stopped in we'd take up.

Joseph Hindley succeeded Arthur Bettencourt and would be the last keeper at Gay Head, leaving when the light was fully automated in 1956. The dwelling was razed after automation.

The best views of the lighthouse and cliffs are from a scenic lookout near the small strip of shops and restaurants at Gay Head.

The cliffs are closed to the public because of erosion concerns, but the lighthouse is opened by the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from one hour before sunset to a half hour after sunset, from the summer solstice to the fall equinox.

Keepers: Ebenezer Skiff (1799-1828); Ellis Skiff (1828-1845); Samuel Flanders (1845-1849 and 1853-1861); Henry Robinson (1849-1853); Ichabod Norton Luce (1861-1864); Calvin C. Adams (1864-1869); Horatio N. T. Pease (assistant 1863-1869, principal keeper 1869-1890); Frederick Poole (assistant, c. 1884); Calvin M. Adams (assistant c. 1872-?); Frederick H. Lambert (assistant, c. 1870s); Edward P. Lowe (1891-1892); Crosby L. Crocker (1892-1920); Charles W. Vanderhoop (1920-1933); James E. Dolby (1933-1937); Frank A. Grieder (1937-1948); Sam Fuller (assistant, c. 1940s); Arthur Bettencourt (1948-?); Joseph Hindley (?-1956)

Thanks to New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide where I got all this information.
Lots more information is available in Jeremy D'Entremont book, "The Lighthouses of Massachusetts."


Kary said...

beautiful beth!! believe it or not - I have never been to MV!! YiKes!!!

ZudaGay said...

Wonderful article, Bethy!!! I am really enjoying your lighthouse series! I wonder if Lightkeeper Pease was one of my hubby's ancestors.

Sixsisters said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sixsisters said...

Fabulous photos Bethy ! Thanks for this series.
How neat of a name is Peleg ?

~*~Pearl~*~ said...

Wow bethy so beautiful!

Scout said...

Bethy, another wonderful post in your series and I love the stories. I never have made it to MV either. Maybe we will go together one day.

ox joonie on scout's computer

yankeegirl said...

I really love this series, Bethy!! Being a lighthouse fan myself, I'm enjoying both your photos and the history behind them. Thanks!

Chauncey said...

Bethy, great post. I love this series and your photos. Looking forward to the next installment.

MagdaleneJewels said...

I love your series on Lighthouses.
Since I have been going to the Cape since I was young, they have always captured my attention. I have a friend who grew up in a Lighthouse on "Mayo Beach" (bayside) in Wellfleet, MA. How cool is that!

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