Gay Head Lighthouse, Aquinnah

#3 of 11 in Historic Sites in Martha's Vineyard
Gay Head Light is a historic lighthouse located on Martha's Vineyard westernmost point off of Lighthouse Road in Aquinnah, Massachusetts.
1796–1838 – Gay Head Light – the first lighthouse on Martha's VineyardWhen the first Congress of the newly formed United States government met in 1789, one of its first acts was to assume responsibility for lighthouses and other aids to navigation along the country's coastline. For the next twenty-five years, design and construction of new lighthouses were authorized by Congress. The location, size, design, and construction of each lighthouse was considered of such vital importance, that the decision-making process involved the highest officials, including the President.
In 1796, Massachusetts State Senator, Peleg Coffin, requested a lighthouse be installed on Martha's Vineyard above the Gay Head cliffs overlooking a dangerous section of underwater rocks known as "Devil's Bridge." Senator Peleg's request to his Congressman in Washington was substantiated by the maritime traffic navigating the waters between Gay Head and the Elizabeth Islands, which was reported in a late 1800s Massachusetts study at 80,000 vessels annually. As the state representative for Nantucket, Peleg Coffin also had the whaling industry interests of Nantucket in mind. The Gay Head lighthouse was authorized in 1798 by the United States Congress during the Presidency of John Adams. This authorization was to help facilitate safe passage for vessels passing through the hazardous Vineyard Sound waters near the Gay Head cliffs.
In 1799 The Commonwealth of Massachusetts deeded two acres and four rods to the Federal Government for the purpose of building a lighthouse overlooking the clay cliffs and Devil's Bridge. During the same year, President John Adams approved a contract with Martin Lincoln of Hingham, Massachusetts, to build a 47-foot octagonal wooden lighthouse tower on a stone base (including light room); a 17 x 26-foot wooden keeper's house; a whale oil storage building, and various other outbuildings. This wooden octagonal lighthouse is illustrated in the c1800 woodcut shown below left. Charles Edward Banks, who published "The history of Martha's Vineyard" in 1911 wrote, "This wooden tower lasted sixty years, and the site of it, nearer the brow of the cliffs than the present one, can be seen yet in a circular elevation of the soil.
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Gay Head Lighthouse Reviews
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201 reviews
  • Shops here were very reasonable- food at upper restaurant- delicious. See this area at sunset as the cliffs change colors.  more »
  • It was a long bus ride out there from our home base of Edgartown, but so worth it. Beautiful views of the cliffs and beach. You can go up in the lighthouse for 6$. Cute little shops and restaurants ri...  more »
  • First of all, this is the Aquinnah Light House. It is located in Aquinnah, named by the indigenous people who lived here hundreds of years before we stole it from them. Most of the Aquinnah area has had it's names changed back to the original. The last review mentioned going to Gay Head many times. This is definitely incorrect. I assume that, since the lighthouse was built after the indigenous, it may retain this awful name for some time to come. As far as the lighthouse itself if is a lovely one. It is still in operation, used by ships in the area in the evening. We arrived a few minutes after the lighthouse closed to visitors, so no going inside for my companion and I. We did enjoy some incredible views from the location though. Apparently the whole thing was moved back awhile ago. Because of the beach erosion in was necessary to keep it safe. Interestingly enough, they only moved it 20 feet from the old location. It just struck me odd that such an effort was made to only move it a little bit. It is definitely worth checking out if you are in Aquinnah. If you are visiting during the summer or early fall be sure and stick around until the sun goes down. That way you can watch the lighthouse in action. As it turns it goes from red to white with each half rotation.
  • I've been to Gay Head many a times but I have never been inside the Lighthouse. It was such a cool experience, not to mention the great view. The women who work at the Lighthouse are absolutely lovely. We had a nice chat before and after our visit. Add this to your list.

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