For more than 200 years, the Gay Head Lighthouse has provided a welcome beacon to mariners in the waters off the west end of Martha’s Vineyard. First lit with whale oil, then kerosene, and later outfitted with one of the first Fresnel lenses in the United States, before the end of this summer the sweep of the light’s familiar rotating high intensity incandescent beacon will end.
The Coast Guard plans to replace the light’s aging DCB-224 optic, a rotating mechanism that relies on a bank of 1,000-watt incandescent bulbs set behind red and white filters, with stationary 80 watt LED bulbs. The new light will alternate between white and red flashes, every 15 seconds.
Matthew Stuck, United State Coast Guard First District Aids to Navigation program manager, said the change is dictated by factors that include mariner reliability, cost and the difficulty of finding parts for a mechanism that is more than 40 years old.
Coast Guard teams visit the lighthouse four times a year to provide regular maintenance, in addition to repair trips. Replacement parts are hard to come by, Mr. Stuck said.
“The reality is they are very expensive to operate,” he said. They must also be manually reset each time there is a power outage.
In contrast, the LED lights will use 80 watts. In the event of a power outage, they will provide reliable illumination when powered by a combination of batteries and solar panels.
Mr. Stuck said approximately 80 percent of all aids to navigation in the USCG First District now use LED technology — a change made possible by advances in LED technology. It is part of a continuing evolution over the centuries that included the jump from whale oil to kerosene to electric lamps.
Mr. Stuck said he understands the concerns of Island residents and the attachment they have to the traditional beacon. “It is part of the local culture,” he said.
But, he said, the Coast Guard has a responsibility that is two fold: “to provide the best optical signal and be good stewards of taxpayer funds.”
Mr. Stuck said the LED will provide a crisp, sharp light red and white light that is rated visible at 14 nautical miles, but in actual practice will be visible at a greater distance. By contrast, the white incandescent lamp is visible at 24 miles and the red at 20 miles.
Mr. Stuck, a civilian who is also serves as a Coast Guard reservist, a position unrelated to his civilian job, is part of a division that is responsible for 5,700 buoys, lights and beacons, and oversees another 4,800 private aids to navigation.
Mr. Stuck said there is no set timeline for the switch to LED, but he expects it would occur sometime before the end of the summer.
History mirrors technology
Gay Head Light was established in 1799 and consisted of a keeper’s dwelling and an octagonal tower, which guided mariners past Devil’s Bridge, a dangerous rock ledge that extends out to the northwest from the cliffs, and presents a hazard at the west entrance to Vineyard Sound.
In 1796, Peleg Coffin of Nantucket wrote to his Congressman in Washington requesting a lighthouse at Gay Head for “the convenience and interest of Nantucket.”
In 1799, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts deeded two acres and four rods to the Federal Government for the site of the lighthouse. President John Adams approved a contract with Martin Lincoln of Hingham to build a wooden lighthouse structure and a keeper’s cottage and outbuildings. Ebenezer Skiff was appointed keeper and on November 7th the light was turned on for the first time. It most likely had a “spider” lamp of several wicks in a shallow circular pan filled with sperm whale oil, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
In 1813, a new system was installed that relied on ten lamps, each with a reflector, mounted to a chandelier that revolved every four minutes.
In 1844, the light tower was moved back from the cliff edge 75 feet by John Mayhew of Edgartown at a cost of $386.87.
By July 1854, the light had been upgraded to 14 lamps and larger reflectors. In August, Congress approved a request for $30,000 for the total replacement of the tower, dwelling house, light, and first-order Fresnel lens.
In 1852, a Lighthouse Board report listed Gay Head Light as one of the most important lighthouses on the Atlantic Coast due to the amount of marine traffic that passed beneath its gaze.
Because of its strategic location, Gay Head Light received one of the first Fresnel lenses in the United States in 1854. The conical, brick tower was constructed to properly house the enormous lens in 1856.
On May 15, 1874, the light was changed from just “flashing white” to “three whites and one red” to distinguish Gay Head and eliminate confusion with any other flashes. The
The automatic DCB-224 lens, modern for its day, replaced the original Fresnel lens in 1952, and the station was unmanned just four years later.
The Coast Guard donated the Fresnel lens to the Dukes County Historical Society, now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
At a special town meeting on February 5, Aquinnah voters agreed to purchase the Gay Head lighthouse and initiate the process to preserve, restore, and relocate it.
The red brick beacon that has guided mariners since 1856 sits 50 feet from the edge of a cliff that is receding about two feet every year. The lighthouse must be moved within the next couple of years if it is to be saved, according to experts.
The lighthouse is currently the property of the U.S. Coast Guard and is leased to and maintained by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The cost to shore up and move the lighthouse is expected to reach several million dollars. One outstanding question is where to move it.