Keeping the lights on: A love affair with Gay Head Light

Keeping the lights on: A love affair with Gay Head Light

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William Waterway's new book honors the Gay Head Light.

“Gay Head Lighthouse: The First Light on Martha’s Vineyard,” by William Waterway, The History Press. 159 pages, $19.99.

The Gay Head Light will likely be pulled back from the precipice yet again.

Right now it stands only 50 feet from the eroded Gay Head cliff’s edge, but a group dedicated to saving the 215-year old beacon have found the Island icon a new home 150 feet away. The Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee (gayheadlight.org) has in hand more than half the $3 million needed to move and restore the lighthouse.

Now comes William Waterway (Marks) with a slim volume about the lighthouse, which has survived attacks from nature and from bureaucracy in its lifetime. What we also get from the Gay Head Light story is a macro view of the country’s post-Revolutionary history and a micro view of up-Island life as it was lived in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries in the words of the people who lived then.

Turns out the care and safety of Gay Head Light has been a mission for Mr. Waterway for nearly four decades, which led him to personally pay for its upkeep for several years. Mr. Waterway founded the Vineyard Environmental Research Institute (VERI), the first U.S. civilian entity to be awarded the care and feeding of lighthouses from the U.S. Coast Guard. VERI has a 35-year lease dating from 1986 with care for the East Chop and Edgartown lights also included.

Mr. Waterway’s mission has led him to ferociously research the lighthouse, its Aquinnah community and people. Scholarly and commendable work.

If Aquinnah has always felt exotic to you, annual town meeting hijinks aside, Mr. Waterway’s text sheds some light. Until South Road was extended to Gay Head in 1931, there was no paved road to the light. For more than 100 years, travelers could only traverse the last five or six miles on foot or horseback.

And when they got there, hot showers did not await. Nor did electricity. Aquinnah was the last town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be hooked up. Here’s some perspective: when you and I were rockin’ to Dick Clark and “American Bandstand” on TV in the 1950s, Aquinnah was a-twitter about the arrival of electricity. The lighthouse was electrified first, but only after Elsie Grieder, the lighthouse keeper’s wife, wrote to President Harry S. Truman to scold him about conditions at the light. Truman always promised that “the buck stops here,” and he was as good as his word.

The Gay Head Light was literally isolated from the remainder of an isolated island, with the responsibility of making safe passage for mariners navigating the ship-eating Devil’s Bridge, an underwater ridge that extends out from Gay Head toward Cuttyhunk.

Mr. Waterway gives evidence, through correspondence and in conversation with lighthouse and Wampanoag tribal elders, of the difficulties of being a lighthouse keeper in Gay Head. There was limited potable water: a trek to a fresh spring a mile away was the best answer. Firewood to heat the light and the keeper’s house was shipped in by boat.

The lighthouse lens refracted light from 14 lamps fueled by whale oil, creating smudge on the lenses and windows and the need to clean the lens and window surfaces constantly. Our 19th century national government knew Gay Head was critical to marine passage in the golden age of sail and that Vineyard waters were among the most traveled and dangerous in the world.

Still, when first keeper Ebenezer Skiff petitioned for a raise from $200 per annum in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson had to approve a $25 increase. Skiff’s later petitions for raises, and a horse and wagon to fetch water, required the attention of presidents Madison, Monroe, and John Q. Adams. Gay Headers were chatting with the White House 200 years ago. Can’t make this stuff up.

The arrival of “Gay Head Lighthouse” ought to aid fundraising for the preservation of Gay Head Light, but not just because it’s really old and a premier Island visual treat, but also because it is a symbol of the character of eight or nine generations of Islanders who have kept its light burning.

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