Aquinnah lighthouse undergoing beacon change

The U.S. Coast Guard no longer stores enough replacement parts to maintain Aquinnah's current beacon.

The Gay Head Lighthouse, 2015. — Lisa Vanderhoop

The rotating red-and-white pattern of the Gay Head Light in Aquinnah comes from a model of beacon so obsolete that it is used by only five other U.S. Coast Guard lighthouses. But the time has come for an upgrade.

The Carlisle & Finch company’s “DCB-224 aerobeacon” lights were produced so that airports could signal to planes. But they also became common in lighthouses nationwide by the middle of the 20th century.

But in 2024, the Coast Guard says that they no longer keep the parts necessary to maintain the beacons, and that they want to replace those parts in Aquinnah with a newer, less power-hungry component by spring of next year.

Starting around September of this year and lasting until March or May, the Coast Guard will be removing and replacing the old lights. They’ll also set up a temporary flashing beacon outside of the lighthouse — between the lighthouse and the cliffside — to maintain a warning system for mariners.

“[Gay Head Light] is essentially two mid-20th-century aircraft warning lights back to back, that are mounted opposite one another and spin on a drum,” says Matthew Stuck, Coast Guard Waterways Manager.

Stuck adds that the model has had a good run. “[The 224] is technology that was really tried and true for decades in the 1900s, really right through the early 2000s, but was superseded by LED rotating beacons [and] by a whole series of other low-power [optics],” he says.

For years, Stuck says, the Coast Guard has been maintaining remaining 224s by cobbling together spare parts. “[The 224] is not a supported equipment by the Coast Guard,” Stuck says. “[It] really hasn’t been for probably the last 15 years.”

He also says that 224s have power-hungry motors. And while he is sure that the replacement light will use less energy than the current one, the Coast Guard still has many options still to choose from for rotating, bright, energy-efficient optics. “‘What’s the best fit?'” Stuck posed. “‘What’s the most sustainable fit for the reliabilities of the signal, and for the long haul?'”

While the replacement process is underway, Stuck says that no optic will be visible in the lighthouse’s lantern room, and that a temporary flashing beacon will be installed elsewhere on the Aquinnah Cliffs. He says that this flashing light will serve mariners well, and that a temporary rotating light would be too complex and too exposed to the weather. 

“[The temporary light] will probably be a … steel spindle that will be seaward of the lighthouse tower, favoring more towards the edge of the bluff,” Stuck says.

Stuck also assures Vineyarders that the new optic will rotate, as the current lights do. “We understand the affinity that a lot of the locals from the town of Aquinnah and the nearby locations have for that loom, if you will, of a beam as it rotates,” he says.

The Coast Guard will pay for the replacement, per an agreement made in 2015. According to Aquinnah town administrator Jeffrey Madison, maintaining the light is the Coast Guard’s responsibility, while maintaining the structure of the lighthouse is the town’s responsibility.

Madison hopes that the new optic can display a very old three-whites-and-a-red pattern that he remembers from decades ago. 

“For hundreds of years,” Madison said at a select board meeting on Monday, “the pattern of the sweeping beam was three whites and a red. Now it’s just white, red, white, red. If it’s possible, I think it’d be great if we could return to the old, traditional — if you can call it that — pattern of the light.”

According to Stuck, the new optic will require a bidding process but will likely cost the Coast Guard $15,000–$40,000. And, depending on the optic chosen, the Coast Guard will only need to visit the lighthouse half as often for maintenance, either once or twice yearly.

At the Select Board meeting, board members wondered aloud what might become of the DCB-224s after replacement. 

Board member Juli Vanderhoop asked whether the old optics could be donated to an institution on the Vineyard, such as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum or Aquinnah Cultural Center.


  1. A minor correction: The Carlisle DCB-224 aerobeacon was installed in 1989. It replaced a two-tiered Crouse-Hinds lens installed in 1952 when the Gay Head station was electrified and the first-order Fresnel lens in use since 1856 was decommissioned and donated to the Dukes County Historical Society (now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum).

    The Crouse-Hinds lens (also on display at the Museum, on loan from the Coast Guard) replicated the white-white-white-red flash pattern of the Fresnel. Its replacement by the Carlisle DCB-224 changed the flash pattern to alternating white-red.

    • Hi Mary,
      Thanks for your kind reply. As far as light goes LED’s are not “‘upgrade”. They are a soulless efficiency, completely lacking in sufficient illumination and warmth. Not to mention the sickening green hue and you can’t see anything. As long as there are an incandescent light bulbs on this earth I will be using them! A pox on LED’s!!

      • Martha it’s 2024, not 1994.
        LEDs are available in a full range of intensities and color temperatures.
        All most all navigation lights, marine and aeronautical, are now LED.
        Like the navigation lights on the SSA boats.
        A pox on blubs that consume ten times more power than an LED’s!!
        A pox on blubs that burn out ten times faster than an LED’s!!
        Are LEDs in traffic lights a bad idea? Do they put light blub changers out of business?

      • Martha, Thanks for the thanks! 😊
        Hess is right, there are now some really well colored LED lights. Try just one in your home, say a lamp in a room by itself, so you can see the difference. If you choose a warm, or yellow hue, it’s pretty cozy.
        You know me, encouraging people to use less electricity; LEDs use about 10% of the electricity that an incandescent uses.
        That being said, I adore old Christmas lights and the cozy glow they offer.

      • Martha–I didn’t know that dinosaurs are still roaming
        the earth. By the way, when you lived in my house,
        all the lighting was LED.
        But the one thing LEDs do not do
        is dim the same way the dinosaur bulbs do.
        As a dinosaur bulb dims it gets warmer,
        leds stay the same color.
        But, I can live with that as the leds significantly
        reduce my
        electric bill and since most people are using them
        they only have to up 62 windmills instead of
        80 to supply 400,000 houses with electricity.

  2. I thought all lighthouses up and down the East Coast had different patterns, so ship captains would know where they were.

    • How many different patterns would that be?
      In 2024 ship captains know where they are, they have GPS

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