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Gay Head Cliffs provide an evolving natural palette
At the edges of our lives, the sea pounds on the shore, and the shore stands guard against the sea's assault. Or does it? The Vineyard littoral has changed repeatedly and significantly over time. It is changing still. The Times asked Jo-Ann Taylor, a coastal planner, to describe and illustrate the changing Island shores, in monthly illustrated installments.
On May 24, 1602 the brightly colored cliffs at the Western end of Martha's Vineyard provided a notable landmark for English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who dubbed the cape Dover Cliff after the famed landmark of his homeland. According to The History of Martha's Vineyard Volume II by Dr. Charles E. Banks, the name did not survive Gosnold's journal and some time before 1662 the English took to calling it Gay Head "as descriptive of the gaily colored cliffs seen from the west when approaching the island from the sea."
A postcard view of the cliffs. Photo Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum
Well before the English gazed upon the cliffs, the Wampanoag Indians, the original inhabitants of Martha's Vineyard, ascribed the colorful cliffs to a giant supernatural creature named Moshup, who legend has it created their homeland by dragging his toe across Vineyard Sound.
According to Wampanoag legend, Moshup would wade into the ocean, pick up a whale swimming close to shore, fling it against the cliffs to kill it, and then cook it over the fire that burned continually. The blood from these whales stained the clay banks of the cliffs dark red.
These days, the cliffs are mostly white, with just teasing glimpses of red showing. What has toned down the brilliant display of red, yellow, black and gray clay?
A photo of Gay Head Cliffs circa 1880 by Richard Schute. Photo Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum
The bright colors were originally laid down on the old coastal plain that was once there, about 135 million years ago. The different colors of clay reflect what was going on at the time of deposition. The green clay was laid down in deep water, on a continental shelf environment, for example. The red clay was laid down on land.
When the glaciers came, some 23,000 years ago, the great weight of the ice pushed and folded the colored clay before the advancing ice front. The folded clay was left as a tectonic moraine to mark the limit of the ice advance. So the science is not far from the Wampanoag legend about Moshup dragging his toe. When the glaciers ceased their advance, melting began; and sand, gravel and boulders were left to mark the line of retreat about 18,000 years ago.
The cliffs, including all the brilliant colors, have been disappearing at the rate of about 2 feet per year. There is very little holding the clay together, and it doesn't take much rain, or even freezing and thawing action, to get things moving. Much more is lost from the cliffs by slumping and landslides at the top than by wave action at the base of the cliffs. Often, the ocean water near the cliffs is tinted with the colors of the clay that has washed down. In addition to loss by natural erosion, the cliff has also been affected by the actions of people. Years ago the clay provided a revenue source to the town of Gay Head, since renamed Aquinnah, which sold leases to take the clay for making bricks. The Gay Head Clay Company and the Gay Head Fire Brick Company held leases for many years and the removal of the clay took its toll on the cliffs. Only the members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, the only federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts, may take clay now.
A view of the cliffs in 2006. Photo Courtesy of Jo-Ann Taylor
There is not a lot of beach in front of the cliffs, because any sand that comes out of the cliffs is soon carried away by wave action. Just offshore to the northwest, the treacherous reef known as Devil's Bridge marks the former shoreline. The boulders are all that is left after the sand and clay have washed away.
Because of the dangers Devil's Bridge represented for ships rounding the western end of the Island, the first lighthouse on the Vineyard was built at the Gay Head cliffs to alert ships of the dangers waiting offshore. The octagonal lighthouse was first lighted on November 18, 1799, by the keeper Ebenezer Skiff; it was made of wood and its lamp burned sperm whale oil.
Beachgoers remove clay in a photo by Richard Schute circa 1880. Photo Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum
Whether seen on a dark and stormy night or on a sun-drenched summer day, the cliffs and beach below remain an outstanding landmark. And do not despair for the brilliant colors of the past century or two. Those who missed the bright colors need only wait very patiently. There is plenty more waiting to be exposed, and it will be back. Just as surely as the rain and wind will continue to wash away the white clay, the red will be back!
Jo-Ann Taylor studied geology at Smith College and Boston University, earning BA and MA degrees. Her background includes planning, oceanographic research (marine geophysics), small engineering projects, and government administration. For the past 14 years, she has served as the coastal planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission.